Messi, Neymar lead Barcelona past Atletico to La Liga summit
Lionel Messi led Barcelona to a 2-1 win over title-rivals Atletico Madrid to stay perfect in La Liga and go top of the table at Real Madrid’s expense on Saturday. Messi, a second-half sub, flicked the ball into the back of the net with the outside of his boot with 14 minutes to play, a sublime bit of skill set up by an inch-perfect pass from Luis Suarez.
The result also ended Atleti’s early streak; they had won both their games and had yet to concede a goal coming into today. But against a Barcelona side that looked irresistible for long stretches, this was a game that showed the championship caliber of the Catalonian side. Boasting the deadliest attack in the European game, Barca may not be as deep as in years past, but they retain their old guile and power. Today, against a gritty Atleti side that is as good as they come, they showed both.
"It’s great for you when you can keep a team like Atletico from creating chances," Barcelona boss Luis Enrique said via the team’s official website.
"We had a huge game. We have a tough schedule and it’s very important to beat a direct rival. But we still have a lot to do," he said.
Messi did not even start today for Barcelona; the Argentine playmaker missed training due to the birth of his second child, but it was still something of a shock to see him on the bench at kickoff.
"We knew he had been travelling we wanted to reserve him for later in the game. We have a deep squad and that’s important," Enrique noted.
Atletico also dealt a surprise with Fernando Torres chosen to lead the line out over Jackson Martinez. Martinez had played well off Antoine Griezmann in Atletico’s 3-0 mauling of Sevilla, and there were a few occasions today when it appeared Torres and Griezmann did not have the same chemistry.
Barcelona did everything but score in the first half, pinging the ball around with confidence at speed against an Atletico side that needed help from their goalposts and keeper Jan Oblak. Ivan Rakitic had the first good chance of the game 15 minutes in, firing in off a wonderful ball through traffic from Andres Iniesta out wide that Oblak did well to palm over his own bar.
A minute later, Luis Suarez – the best player for either team in the first half — nearly teed up Rafinha with a lovely disguised ball that was a hair’s breadth away from being headed into the back of the net.
But there was also something off about Barcelona’s attack and as the game wore on, Atletico looked more secure. Suarez somehow conspired to waste the best chance of the half when he headed on to the bar from two yards. Rakitic’s corner was nodded on for Suarez, who found himself alone at the far post, but could not get over the ball to put it on net.
The game started to trickle out as the half wore on. Neymar had a gasping run that ended with Jose Gimenez sprawling to block the shot with his arm. It was perhaps a penalty, but play continued and Suarez, open to Neymar’s left, was left exasperated when instead of passing, Neymar tried to bull his way toward the net, with nothing doing.
The fouls started to add up as well, with Filipe Luis and Oliver Torres going in the book for Atletico and Gabi and Diego Godin somehow avoiding sanction. And when the halftime whistle went, both managers probably had cause to feel good about where they stood: Barcelona had bossed the game, but Atletico had taken the punches and not conceded.
But after the break, it was Atleti who struck first. Fernando Torres signaled the danger almost off the restart, firing in a cross that Javier Mascherano blocked away with his trailing arm. Referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz was perhaps too lenient – it looked a penalty — but no matter, for four minutes later, Tiago collected a slack ball at the halfway line and punched it up into Torres’ stride. El Nino ran it down the gut and with Jordi Alba desperately flapping, slid the ball through Ter Stegen and off the far post to seize the lead and send the Calderon into chaos. It was the first goal that Barcelona had conceded this season, and a classic goal from the one-time Liverpool star.
The lead would not last: four minutes later, Griezmann was penalized for a foul, and Neymar proceeded to crash the free kick into the top corner, sending an unstoppable ball over the Atleti wall and leaving Oblak with no chance.
Messi would make his appearance on the hour, spelling Rakitic; Simeone reacted immediately by withdrawing Fernando Torres for Martinez. The former made an immediate impact, firing a great ball to Neymar that Diego Godin clumsily but successfully kicked off his own goal line. There was again more than a whiff of handball as the ball seemed to get killed by Godin’s training arm, but Lahoz ruled it was ball to hand and let play continue.
Messi’s introduction had another effect: Atletico suddenly found it nearly impossible to get the ball out of their own half. And with fourteen minutes to play, Suarez and Messi combined to deadly effect. Jordi Alba fired in a cross that Suarez deadened and placed for Messi to gallop on to. With Atleti caught out and backpedalling, Messi made the sublime look commonplace, flicking the ball with the outside of his left boot to the far post, over the despairing Oblak.
Martinez did what he could, nearly snatching one back off service from Griezmann with seven to play, but even though he controlled the cross beautifully, chesting it down to volley, he could not make clean contact and the ball ended up in Ter Stegen’s mitts.