Lionel Messi did a Lionel Messi thing, scoring very late to beat Atlético Madrid on Sunday afternoon and send Barcelona top of LaLiga for at least a couple hours.
I somehow find myself writing this report just about every time Atlético face Barcelona. Atleti played well, controlled play for large stretches of the game, pressed with great vigor, scored to put themselves in position for a creditable result....aaaaand lost 2-1.
Rafinha opened the scoring a few minutes after the hour, as he broke the seal on a tight contest by slotting past Jan Oblak after a defensive scramble. Diego Godín leveled the scores with a classic set-piece goal 20 minutes from time, and Atlético were minutes from the draw until Messi’s heroics swung the result to the two-time defending champions.
Diego Simeone, in his 300th game as Atlético’s boss, welcomed Oblak back into the fold, as the Slovene made his first appearance since he dislocated his shoulder on Dec. 12. Diego Godín also returned following a nearly three-week long layoff. Kévin Gameiro and Antoine Griezmann renewed their partnership up top, and the midfield quartet of Koke-Gabi-Saúl-Carrasco stuck around following the great midweek performance against Bayer Leverkusen.
Atlético did not look fatigued from that trip to Germany in the first half on Sunday. Los colchoneros pressed high up the pitch and with great intensity; Barcelona were very uncomfortable as Atleti swarmed Marc-André ter Stegen in the first half hour. But the German stood tall with the game scoreless; he first parried over the bar a long-range attempt from Antoine Griezmann before he snuffed out his low cross to an unmarked Koke in front of goal. Oblak also made two big saves - an incredible tip from a Messi free kick and a snag on the goal line of a Gerard Piqué header. Oblak also was fortunate that Filipe Luís did not put the ball in his own net while trying to prevent a Luis Suárez goal during the first of many scrambles in the 18-yard box.
Barcelona woke up after the half hour mark and soon began to probe and create mayhem in front of Oblak. This mayhem was fully realized in the 64th minute, when a sustained spell of pressure, which included blocked shots and failed clearances from the Atlético defense, culminated in a Rafinha goal. The gods smiled upon Barça, and the good fortune to score from a move where the ball pinged about so freely gave the visitors the advantage.
That advantage would last just six minutes. After Simeone threw on Ángel Correa and Fernando Torres for Yannick Carrasco and Kévin Gameiro, Godín harkened back to his famous league-winning goal at Camp Nou nearly three years ago when he scored a trademark header from a Koke free kick. Atlético had roared back to life in front of a frenzied Vicente Calderón crowd, and it seemed as if a draw - at least - was on the cards.
RON HOWARD: It wasn’t.
In the 86th minute, another mad scramble in the box - which featured more deflections and a team-wide inability to make one clearance - set up another Messi moment. Stefan Savić blocked Messi’s initial shot in front of Oblak following a Samuel Umtiti pass, but fell down and was unable to get up long enough to recover the ball and send it flying down the pitch. Messi was waiting and took advantage of the indecision to poke in his 22nd goal in 22 league games against Atlético.
Simeone summed up the latest loss to Barcelona - his 12th in 21 games as manager - in his post-match presser.
Simeone: "At end whoever made a mistake would lose, there was a move with lots of rebounds in our area, and they took advantage.”— Dermot Corrigan (@dermotmcorrigan) February 26, 2017
Simeone: "1-2 has become the usual score v Barca, unfortunately, specially in Liga. They have hurt us in the same way other times."— Dermot Corrigan (@dermotmcorrigan) February 26, 2017
Simeone: "In all games v Barca there is the feeling we could win, but they have shown their quality in the areas, which is decisive."— Dermot Corrigan (@dermotmcorrigan) February 26, 2017
The draw would not have exactly helped either team, but the loss very much hurts Atlético in the race for next season’s Champions League. Atleti are now seven points adrift of third place, one point ahead of Real Sociedad in fifth and still have yet to beat any of the current top six this season - just one draw among five losses, with two goals scored and 12 conceded. Simeone’s men will likely need maximum points from visits to Deportivo La Coruña and Granada - and home to an improved Valencia - in the run-in to Sevilla’s Calderón trip on March 19. Regardless of whether Atlético deserved to share the spoils or not, this result is damaging - even more so because the team played well enough to avoid defeat.
Simeone’s men will look to get back on track on Thursday in Galicia.