This was a weird match, because it featured a pair of teams who are still excellent, but who are also entering the end of a cycle.
Diego Simeone has whipped his Atleti team into a frenzy of intensity. They control, track back like demons and control a match. Yet they can’t score goals, and have won only three of the last eleven matches. As journalist Lee Roden asked on Twitter:
The core of Simeone's identity is based on intensity. When you lose that, what's left? https://t.co/dRuewkplIG
— Lee Roden (@LeeRoden89) December 1, 2019
And that’s an excellent question.
Barça, on the other hand, is in a miasma of something or other. Aged/aging players, young folks not integrated, new transfers struggling, no plan, no tactics. Yet they are top of the league, and top of their Champions League group, a team that is a mystery wrapped around an enigma.
The two teams faced off at the Wanda, a crucial road match for Barça and a crucial league match for Atleti. Lose, and they’re six points behind the top of the table. Win, and they’re in it with a shout. Barça could afford to lose in the standings but not psychologically, coming off a host of dire away performances, the team needed to find its mojo, riding high after a 3-1 home dismantling of Dortmund in Champions League.
Atleti came out like the legion of doom, looking to put Barça to the sword early and often. They were first to every ball, in control of the match with a press so savage that Barça couldn’t even play out of its own end, couldn’t string a sequence of passes together to make anything good happen. Ter Stegen had one save, another shot caromed off Junior Firpo, off the post and to something like safety that was in reality more of a respite as Simeone’s legions girded their loins and charged one again.
Barça had no answer, and all of the dire predictions before the match were looking to come to pass, except for that weird thing, a detestable quality if you look at the chatter on Barça Twitter, individual brilliance. Ter Stegen saved, then saved again. Lenglet blocked, Firpo blocked, Sergi Roberto saved off the goal line. It was a weird scramble of a performance that was also the best Barça away performance of the season, when you consider the opponent, the import of the match and the conditions. Individuals stepped into the breach until the team could find its feet, and make no mistake, this was a team performance, with the group doing what it needed to do, weathering the storm.
By the 30th minute, Barça was finding it easier, playing out of the back, finding playing space, holding the ball, turning the match into a creeping, grey thing in the mold of its dour coach, and it was working. Ball possession was more solid, and Atleti didn’t quite seem to know what to do. Their energy decreased, the counterattacks weren’t as sharp, and Barça could play at this ultimately unsatisfying thing that passes for Barça football in the here and now.
It was team against team in a weird, disjointed thing that hung on a knife’s edge, both groups of supporters tense at what might happen. Both teams had players who could turn something simple into something amazing, and decide the match. Messi worked a ball loose on the sideline and charged, feeding Griezmann who spurned his moment of glory, blaxing his volley over. Messi set up Suarez, who blasted his first-time shot directly at Oblak. An unmarked Pique headed a set piece ball into the crossbar.
Supporters of either team could be forgiven for thinking that this was the most intense 0-0 match anyone had ever witnessed, full of action and tension, near misses and great plays, end to end at times, trench warfare at others. One coaches’ box featured Simeone, working as hard as his players, exhorting, screaming, guiding, willing. The other box featured Valverde, hunched in a parka, the football his team was playing as sodden as his garments, moments of grace all too fleeting.
But then, in the 86th minute, it happened. All match, Atleti had put in yeoman work to make sure that Messi didn’t have space in the key area of the pitch, working to front him with player after player. Whether it was a momentary letoff, circumstance or genius, it happened, seemingly foretold by Atleti right back Kieran Trippier in a recent interivew.
“It’s weird in a way. He spends a lot of the game just walking and walking. You play against (Liverpool’s) Sadio Mane, for instance, and if you take your eye off him for a second, he’ll just dart in behind you. But with Messi, you look four times and he’s still there. It’s weird. A lot of the time he just walks and walks — and then, before you know it, it’s a goal.”
It was a little move like many others that had almost happened during the match, but this time was different, this time there was space, just enough space, a sliver, enough to work a 1-2, enough to run, enough to make magic.
As the play developed, Messi took the ball on the run, loping toward the Atleti box, marked loosely by Thomas Partey, who watched him the whole way. Approaching the Atleti box, Messi cut left and accelerated with the ball. Partey had to turn to continue to mark him, but was out of balance, and doomed. The movement of Messi not only put Partey off balance, but created a narrow sliver of passing space. Luis Suarez knew.
As Partey is chasing Messi, Suarez turns to Messi shaping his body, ready to receive the ball, ready for this to be the moment of the match when it all works. Messi slid him the ball and kept on running, a chasing Partey trying to find something that hadn’t been consumed in the fire of 85 minutes of pressing, running, chasing the ball time after time after damn time. And he ran some more.
Messi slid it to Suarez, who one-timed it back to Messi who, still on the dead run, charged diagonally at the Atleti box. Partey is already too late, but there are three defenders, lined up like a diagonal fence. One is playing Messi for the drive into the box, the others not really sure what to do, but they’re holding station. Messi just keeps running. Oblak, the man many say is the best keeper in the game, hopped in place, ready to dive to either side, but not ready for absurdity.
The Suarez return pass was so perfectly weighted that all Messi had to do was strike the ball. But he knew that a windup would be a tell, would alert Oblak, so he just let fly off the dead run, into a sliver of space at Oblak’s near post. Goal. Atleti players ground to a halt, hands on their heads in chagrin. Oblak rose to his feet in defeat, helpless in the face of what had just happened. They had done almost everything right. Almost. In the sliver of vulnerability they allowed, Messi frolicked, then exulted.
He knew how important the goal was. He celebrated, grinned, paid his usual tribute to the heavens, then pounded his chest as if hammering the imprint of the Barça crest into his heart until they became one, a great player after a great goal making a great statement. This is my team, my club, my world. Deal with it.
The temptation is to say that Messi won that match, and he certainly struck the absurd, improbable goal that was just another normal day at the office for him. But this was a team performance. Others held Atleti at bay, made it possible for the genius to do what he does. Even as they were accessories to greatness they also enabled it. This is Messi’s team, but he had some help, and needed it.
The Wanda featured the best away performance by Barça this season, which really isn’t saying all that much. But given the quality of the opponent, the import of the moment and the pressure, this was an excellent display, even if it was far from a perfect one. And maybe, just maybe, that’s what Barça will be this season, flawed but effective, wrapping things in a gray blanket of efficiency.