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Atletico shows teeth in draw vs. Barca
There was lots of tension, plenty of near misses and more than a few thrills and spills, but Saturday’s nights clash of La Liga’s table-toppers Atletico Madrid and Barcelona at the Estadio Vicente Calderon finished goalless – meaning title-rivals Real Madrid were the happiest when the final whistle blew.
Atletico were, as always, supremely organized and frighteningly aggressive, and might look at keeping out Barcelona's free scoring attackers and remaining level on top of the Primera Division table, as a success. But given this was Barca not at their best - with substitutes Lionel Messi and Neymar not at the pace of the game, and Andres Iniesta taken off injured - Diego Simeone might just feel this was a chance missed to take over on top.
Such had been the anticipation pre-game that Atletico had to turn down over 35,000 requests for tickets after the 'house full' signs went up. Official guests at the packed-to-the-rafters Calderon included Spain’s sports minister Miguel Cardenal, national coach Vicente Del Bosque, the French ambassador and former Olympics president [and Catalan] Juan Antonio Samaranch.
This had been the hottest ticket in Spanish capital for months - and those lucky enough to be inside were hugely hyped up before kick off. The opening stages brought piercing whistles any time a Barca player had possession of the ball, followed by deafening cheers when an Atletico player - often tigerish midfielders Gabi and Tiago - won the ball back. Diego Costa had the first shot on target on just five minutes. Even though Barca keeper Victor Valdes saved comfortably, if the Calderon had a roof, it would have come off with the noise.
But bit by bit Barca quietened the crowd by slowing things down and keeping possession for long spells - moving the ball quickly, but always in front of the home defense. Barca’s opponents have now learned from experience not to run after the ball, and the home team held its shape to ensure no gaps for Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez to pass through. Its fans still worried though.
Atletico stuck to their hold and counter plan, and won with three corners in a row - almost scoring from the third, but Costa just could not stretch far enough to convert at the back post. Barca’s best first-half chance also came from a corner routine, with Pedro Rodriguez unable to twist his neck sufficiently to head in Iniesta’s precise cross. Nerves showed just a bit when Atletico keeper Thibaut Courtois spilled Gerard Pique’s 30-yarder, but Miranda hacked the ball clear.
Talk at half-time was of which coach would start to empty his bench first. Martino was forced to move first, with Messi coming on for Iniesta - who had been the best player in the opening 45 minutes, but whose left knee had taken too much punishment from his markers.
The blaugrana number 10 was quickly involved, skipping past Filipe Luis and forcing Courtois to block at his near post. But Messi soon slipped out of sight - and 'Vamos Atleti Vamos' coursed around the Calderon, with red and white scarves whirling - as they grew again in confidence. They were off their feet when the outstanding Arda Turan won the ball in midfield and drove forward to feed Costa, but the Spanish Brazilian shot just wide.
Martino tried again, and launched his second super-sub from the bench - with Neymar replacing the pretty anonymous Alexis Sanchez. But Atleti sub Raul Garcia [on for the also ineffective David Villa] made the biggest impression, causing havok which led to Turkish playmaker Turan almost getting the goal he deserved, only for Valdes to again save well. At the other end, Messi did not look at all match fit yet, but he almost conjured up a goal only for Courtois to fly to his left and punch the ball away.
The pace was relentless, but not quick enough for Simeone, who screamed at a ball boy to get the ball for a quick throw-in. The kid was already doing it. Everyone at the Calderon is exactly on the Argentine’s wavelength at the moment. The home fans were on their feet at the end, applauding a team which continues to match their more illustrious opponents, but just cannot manage to pull away from them.
The draw meant Barcelona stayed top - on goal difference - and are La Liga’s ‘winter champions’ with half the season gone. Both coaches could point to moments when they might have won the game, and taken control of the championship. But the feeling was the real winners on the night were Madrid, who can move to within three points of the top by winning at Espanyol on Sunday.
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