A scoreless draw would have been a fair outcome. Atletico Madrid and FC Barcelona had taken turns controlling their charged Sunday showdown all night. They had prodded and pushed and tussled and squandered to a stalemate. And for what these teams had shown, and where they have been all season, that seemed about right.
But then there was Lionel Messi.
Then there is always Lionel Messi.
Then there was his 86th-minute dribble through the heart of the Atletico defense, that signature journey from the right into the middle. He laid the ball off to Luis Suarez. He got it back, with a slight bounce. Messi struck the ball cleanly. Jan Oblak sprawled to his right. And then it had happened to Atletico again. As it always seems to against Barca. Especially late in the game. For the 24th time in 26 matchups since Diego Simeone became Atletico’s manager in 2011, heralding the revival of a mighty club, it failed to beat Barca.
It was a thrilling ending to an entertaining game between two searching teams seeking answers and to reclaim their foothold in the title race.
What the game lacked in goals, until Messi’s late 1-0 winner, it compensated for in splendid individual skill and tension as Atletico, the defensive specialists, struggled to break down Barca’s fetid backline and the Catalans, masters of the attack, couldn’t get through the Mattressmakers’ impenetrable lines.
The win reclaimed Barca’s La Liga lead from Real Madrid, which had nudged ahead of their arch rivals thanks to a win earlier in the weekend. Atletico remains stuck down in sixth place, still six points off the lead.
In the teeming rains of Madrid, a mutually chippy game produced chances and sloppiness in equal measure. Initially, the opportunities were all Atletico’s. Just seven minutes in, Barca’s Junior Firpo deflected a low Mario Hermoso cross off his own far post. The next chance came from Felipe’s header, which just missed the mark.
Hermoso was later served up a wide-open finish from a sharp Joao Felix cross. He whacked a hard finish through Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s legs, but the ball somehow caromed off his calf and wide of goal.
Alvaro Morata’s snap header shortly before halftime, meanwhile, was saved splendidly by ter Stegen.
Barca finally found its footing and came close on Luis Suarez’s thunderous half-volley, wide of the mark, and Gerard Pique’s header, which kissed off the bar. But the defending champions didn’t convert their moments either, setting up a back-and-forth finale spent on the doorsteps of both goals without breaching them for the better part of 90 minutes.
In addition to rain, there was a torrent of boos for both Antoine Griezmann, who abandoned Atleti for Barca this summer, and Joao Felix, the Portuguese prodigy brought in to replace him. The former incurred the wrath of the Wanda Metropolitano for having left. The latter has yet to deliver more than three goals and the occasional flash of his promise, which is to be expected just two weeks after his 20th birthday yet also antithetical to his $139 million transfer fee.
Felix is emblematic of Atletico’s predicament so far this season. There were high expectations of this new team, given the considerable outlay on new players, in spite of the departure of several regulars. There was a demand from fans and pundits that they play better, a brand of soccer prettier and shinier than the austere house style of the last eight years under Simeone.
But they have struggled with that charge. The workaday, machine-like defending brought an unexpected La Liga title and two Champions League finals from 2014-2016. Simeone is understandably reticent in changing it. But this is modern soccer, and great teams are supposed to play great soccer.
Yet there is an opportunity here for Atletico, with Barca and Real in a kind of high-functioning chaos so far this year. A chance to go after another title, perhaps, with their rivals both caught between generations under managers with mandates that are weakening by the day. But Atletico’s stingy defense isn’t matched by its attack, which has now produced just 16 goals in 15 league matches.
Barca is still in first place in La Liga despite being anything but convincing all season, looking like a cheap copy of the transcendent teams it has produced in the last decade. It’s also advanced out of the toughest group in the Champions League with a game to spare already. Barca has now won 11 of its last 13 games in both competitions, losing just once.
Yet it’s all been quite concerning to the Catalan aesthetes. Solutions to the many chronic problems seem in desperately short supply. They largely amount to Messi’s genius, that flash or two every game that can canter the outcome with a snap of his left leg, a flick of his foot.
Which is all of a piece with the dismay over Griezmann’s first months in Catalonia. The expensive French World Cup winner hasn’t fit into the Barca attack seamlessly, or really at all. He admits openly that he still doesn’t know how to read his attacking peers Messi and Suarez, that it doesn’t quite make sense to him. He was supposed to offer attacking alternatives. But like several others, he isn’t looking like he’ll lighten the load on Messi or Suarez either, who are both 32 and not as lively as they used to be.
Still, Barca has managed to hold on to its perch. It keeps figuring out ways to win, however unsightly.
It still has Messi.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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