Barcelona take page out Atletico’s playbook in R-rated encounter

MADRID —

Eight months ago, a touching, uplifting show of sporting fellowship was seen at Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium. The home team had just drawn 1-1 in the final match of a gripping Spanish league season with Atletico Madrid. Barca had led 1-0 for a period, a result that would have made them champions. Diego Godin’s equalizer for Atletico deprived Barcelona of the title, and put the trophy in the hands of the visitors.

Tens of thousands of Barca fans stood up, at the end of the game, to applaud the new champions. Gracious? It seemed so. They had just seen the title snatched from their own club, but they admired the gumption, stamina and skill of their opponents so much they cheered the arrival of the new champions, the first La Liga winners who were not Real Madrid or Barca for ten years. But there was also relief in the clapping, though. Barcelonistas took the view that if the league title had to go somewhere other than Barcelona, anywhere was better than it going to Real Madrid. And hey, if it goes to a place where animosity toward Real is nearly as visceral, aggressive as Barca’s is  … well, all the better.

A principle that "my enemy’s enemy is my friend" has long defined Barcelona’s relationship with Atletico. An element of it survived Atletico’s leapfrogging Barcelona in two competitions last season. Not only did Atletico end Barcelona’s defense of the main domestic title, they also knocked them out of the UEFA Champions League.

But, at Atletico’s Vicente Calderon on Wednesday night, any sense of shared allegiance vanished. An enthralling Copa del Rey quarterfinal, from which Barcelona emerged triumphant — 3-2 on the night, 4-2 on aggregate — was tarnished by two red cards, repeated cynical attempts to hurt opponents by Atletico players, and intemperate behavior off the field. Atletico’s captain Gabi went into the tunnel amid some pushing and shoving at halftime and after the interval he was not seen again. Something happened in the break that earned him a red card.

There was more R-rated behavior. Mario Suarez, Atletico’s central midfield player, would be sent off, thanks to the third punishable foul he had inflicted on Lionel Messi. Suarez’s first, studs-bared foul on Barcelona’s superstar had been committed within the opening minutes. Messi soon afterwards set up the goal that made it 1-1, a dazzling three-way exchange that took the ball half the length of the field, from Messi, to Luis Suarez, to Neymar. That goal, the first of two from Neymar, eased Barcelona toward the semifinals of a competition they are now firm favorites to win.

OUT OF THIS WORLD

The Copa del Rey may be viewed as the third priority of Spain’s leading clubs, but it is more important now that Spanish football knows it has a trio of superpowers, three — not two — teams competing for a trio of prizes; Copa del Rey, La Liga and Champions League. Real Madrid, Barca, and Atletico have been in finals of each of those in the last three years.

Atletico, La Liga holders, runners-up in the 2014 Champions League, did the hard work in the previous round of the Copa del Rey. Los Colchoneros knocked out Real Madrid. They achieved that thanks to an early ambush. In eliminating their neighbors, they profited from striking early through Fernando Torres. He scored within the first minute of each half in their decisive Round of 16 leg against Real. So when Torres scored against Barcelona on Wednesday within one minute of kickoff, he enhanced his reputation as a striker reborn, a weapon against whose early blitzes to be forewarned is somehow not to be forearmed.

Barcelona’s response to the setback, and a score of 1-1 on aggregate, was swift and smooth. Their answers to Atletico’s heated aggression would mostly be mature. Their youngest outfield player, Neymar, conspicuously rose above the fouling, and the taunts from the crowd. "We love his attitude when he’s like this," said Barcelona head coach Luis Enrique of Neymar. "He’s impudent. That’s how he plays. He’s also brave and that’s what we like about him." There was no cooler individual than the Brazilian in a contest that often overheated.

Javier Mascherano, Neymar’s colleague, lost his usual cool. He gave away a foul, mistakenly given as a penalty, for Atletico’s second goal — Raul Garcia converted it — and became flustered in the face of Atletico’s first-half pressing. Gabi lost his cool, too, at least in the judgement of referee Gil Manzano, who sent him off at halftime. Gabi’s account of the incident is this: "I said to him, ‘We should have had a penalty, and a red card to Barcelona.’ Nothing more. And he sent me off."

The incident that incensed Gabi, drove him to confront Manzano, was a goal-bound shot by Atletico’s Antoine Griezmann that struck the arm of Jordi Alba in the Barcelona penalty area. Alba’s back was turned at the time. Within seconds, Barcelona had turned the ricochet into a counter-attack, leading to Neymar’s second goal.

"Barcelona played on the counter-attack," observed Diego Simeone, Atletico’s head coach, "which is not something they tend to do." Barca also scored a goal from a set-piece — Barcelona’s second — a corner from Ivan Rakitic, headed on by Sergio Busquets, and deflected past his own goalkeeper by Atletico’s Miranda. Barca do not tend to score Atletico-style set-piece goals, either.

In short, Barca had beaten Atletico using Atletico’s favorite tools; quick counters, dead balls. Their enemy’s enemy is not only Barca’s friend now, it is their manual to copy, when it suits them.