MADRID — Koke’s early goal was enough for Atletico Madrid to defeat Barcelona 1-0 in Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League quarterfinal second leg at an ecstatic Estadio Vicente Calderon and progress 2-1 on aggregate to Europe’s final four. But Atletico’s victory was about much more than just the single goal — as it both outfought and outthought its rivals, with Barca looking a beaten docket well before the end.
Diego Simeone’s side roared out of the blocks and Koke smashed them in front after just five minutes. They also hit the woodwork three times in the opening stages, and even though Barcelona dominated possession for much of the remainder of the game, Gerardo Martino’s men never really looked like scoring.
The big drama pre-game was the absence of Atletico top scorer Diego Costa, with Adrian Lopez a surprise starter up front. Barca were as expected, but with a patched up defense featuring young defender Marc Bartra and veteran goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto.
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The 55,000 seater Calderon was bursting at the seams and seemed overcome with emotion when the Champions League anthem was played. Ear-piercing whistles then accompanied every touch as Barca kicked off and kept the ball for the entire first 120 seconds.
But it was cheers ringing around the ground on just five minutes when Atletico scored in their first attack. Raul Garcia won a header, Adrian hammered a shot off the crossbar, the ball was recycled with the Barca defense still scrambling, and Koke fired in for 1-0 Atletico.
The home side did not exactly sit back to defend their lead, but continued to pile forward, with every corner earned, and even challenge won, being cheered by the fervent home crowd. Sergio Busquets got caught in possession just outside his own area, and David Villa’s well-struck effort hit the goalframe. The former Barca striker was again bitterly unlucky moments later when another fabulous effort crashed back off the woodwork.
Barca were clearly missing injured defender Gerard Pique a lot more than Atletico were missing Diego Costa, with Bartra and Javier Mascherano panicking any time the ball came near them. In a rare attack at the other end Lionel Messi had a clear chance eight yards out, but he showed an uncharacteristic lack of composure and sent his free header wide.
Barca’s big names Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta [in his 500th Barca game] were struggling to get into the game at all, especially with Atletico’s midfield of Koke, Tiago, Raul Garcia and captain Gabi biting into every tackle. Neymar was Barca’s only real threat — showing real fight and skill to work his way past three markers down the left wing, and center, but Messi miscued the finish.
The game was now settling with the early emotional surge over, and Barca lucky to be just 1-0 down, but still well in it. The visitors were now dominating possession, but doing very little with the balk, as Atletico’s defense sat deep and stayed perfectly in line. Home keeper Thibaut Courtois was untroubled, with a penalty claim from Cesc Fabregas — who was otherwise completely lost — the only slight hope for Barca before the teams went in for halftime.
Barca started the second half better, and Xavi’s precise ball sent Neymar racing clear, only for Courtois to win the one-on-one battle, and then Xavi and Messi missed chances in the subsequent scramble. For a while it was all one-way traffic, but Atletico’s defensive lines squeezed closer and closer together and there was no way through.
“The dressing room is overjoyed because it was a knockout against a great team. Barcelona have been the favourites for a long time. We need to be calm in our approach because there’s a lot left. We must recover our strength because we have a difficult match on Sunday.
On the sidelines Simeone was screaming at his players to press and press, while occasionally turning to exhort more noise from the fans. The coaches’ first switches saw Fabregas night ended with Alexis Sanchez coming on, and the spent Adrian being replaced by Diego Ribas.
The changes seemed to lift the home side. First leg scorer Diego almost notched again, but Pinto beat away his powerful close range effort. Gabi ran 50 yards on the break and could have passed for Villa, but shot himself but the Barca keeper saved with an outstretched boot. The Barca defense then almost self-destructed yet again, but Koke’s shot was somehow blocked. Atletico should really by now have been out of sight.
Martino then withdrew Iniesta to send on Pedro Rodriguez, looking like someone hoping to win by overloading on forwards, not a coach with a proper plan. Neymar remained Barca’s best hope of a goal, and his header from Alexis’ cross was just inches wide. Messi looked forlorn by the end, and has now not scored against Atletico in five games.
Simeone turned on the final whistle to salute the fans, whose energy and noise had kept their side going all 90 minutes. Simeone praised his Atletico side and urged them to dream big after the match.
“The players keep going and going, I feel tremendous admiration for these players," Simeone told Canal Plus after the match. "Beyond the fact that I love them, I love how they continue to deliver. The players are the ones continuing on the path, it’s not from me and they’ve never betrated that.
"The massive battles we’ve won have only served to make them better. They’ve never betrayed our philosophy, becuase there’s an affect and that’s everything.”