BARCELONA, Spain — Four meetings into the season still nothing can separate Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, as the sides played out a tense and thrilling 1-1 in Tuesday night’s Champions League quarterfinal first leg at the Camp Nou.
A tight first half was most notable for injuries to Atletico’s star forward Diego Costa and Barca’s defender Gerard Pique, with the game bursting into life through Diego Ribas’ phenomenal long range strike soon after the break. The gritty visitors seemed set to hang on for a famous victory, but Andres Iniesta took control of the game and Neymar again showed his liking for the big occasion with a crisply taken equalizer which leaves the tie even balanced ahead of next week’s second leg in Madrid.
Neither coach sprung a surprise in their team selections, with Diego Simeone starting ex-Barca forward David Villa for Atletico, and Gerardo Martino going with the pentagon midfield which he reserves for the big occasions. But Atletico’s approach was a surprise, as instead of sitting back to defend, it actually started the better, with Villa missing an early 10-yard chance after Barca’s back-up goalkeeper Jose Pinto fluffed a clearance.
Costa was also involved early, with an aerial challenge on Pique which German referee Felix Brych did not deem a foul, but was enough to force the Spanish defender from the pitch with a back injury, as youngster Marc Bartra entered as a substitute. Everything then seemed to be going Atleticoâs way, with the home fans nervous whenever back-up keeper Pinto had the ball, while the 1,000 visiting fans in the Camp Nou’s top corner sang "Viva Espana" to the annoyance of the Catalan home crowd.
But bit by bit Barca came back into it, with Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and especially Iniesta settling into their usual rhythm. Quick feet from Messi set up a chance for Iniesta, but Diego Godin got across brilliantly to block. Atletico’s chances were further hit when Costa knocked the ball out of play himself and signalled he had picked up a thigh problem. After a chat with Simeone on the sideline the big center-forward accepted he could not continue, with Brazilian playmaker Diego entering [which at the time seemed a huge blow].
That further emboldened Barca, who had two headed chances from Bartra and Messi, but were still struggling to really open up their opponents. Villa got a glimpse at the other end, but Pinto this time impressed with a flying save and we got to halftime at nil all.
Barca began the second period with all of the ball, and inch by inch Atletico were pushed back, while continuing to rack up the yellow cards for persistent tactical fouling. Then just as it seemed that incessant Barcelona pressure would have to pay off, with either a goal or a dismissal, Atletico hit the front.
The 29-year-old playmaker Diego has probably never hit a sweeter strike, and the ball flew right into the top corner of the net from more than 30 yards out and well towards the right of the goal. The stadium was stunned — and now the visitors had something really tangible to defend.
Barca were still finding it hard to find a way through, so Sergio Busquets tried his luck from 25 yards, with Courtois going full stretch to push shot around the post. Messi — on the stretch — headed over from just six yards out. Frustration began to set in with Barca’s players and fans disputing every refereeing decision, and Atletico taking every chance to slow things down.
Then came substitutions which changed the match. Martino withdrew the again ineffective Cesc Fabregas for Chilean winger Alexis Sanchez. Simeone responded by sending on midfielder Jose Sosa for an exhausted Villa. The changes moved Neymar to his favored position on the left, and Iniesta back into the ceter. Within a few minutes the pair had combined when the Spain playmaker’s superb pass released the Brazilian behind Juanfran inside the area, and the finish from the 86 million euro summer signing was emphatic.
The home fans’ cheers were tinged with relief, and they were soon roaring their side on for a winner. It was backs to the wall stuff for the visitors, with Iniesta now running the game from the center. Courtois made another flying save from a Don Andres’ curler, but still the so impressively organized Atletico defensive unit held out, with Messi never really getting free.
When the final whistle blew it was the fourth draw from four meetings between the teams this season, with Ateltico’s away goal still giving them a real chance of progression.
"I don’t know if the factor of playing at home counts for anything but I insist, everything is evenly balanced," Barca boss Martino said after the match. "I’m filled with pride for the way in which Barça played. If we continue like this there are chances for success."
Both sides will also be scanning the injury bulletins ahead of next Wednesday’s return game at Atletico’s Estadio Vicente Calderon, when — one way or another — we will have to have a winner.
"Tonight we played against a great rival. We have a team with huge heart and it made me so happy to be able to compete against these opponents," said Simeone after the match. It was a passionate affair. From a tactical point of view, it was a beautiful game. Both teams played to their strengths and stayed true to their style. The Vicente Calderon will be bursting with atmosphere (for the return leg)."