It had been 272 days since Diego Costa scored a league goal for Atlético Madrid. But for all the frustration and missed chances, for the criticism and theories as to what was wrong, it looked like he had given Atlético a season-defining victory before an Ousmane Dembélé strike nicked a point for Barcelona at the death in a game that only truly started as it was just about to end.
The pre-match Wanda Metropolitano atmosphere on Saturday night was electric. There was an excitement in the air, with fans appreciating the consequences of a victory — and for that matter, a loss — and both managers felt that same tension, which was apparent in their respective approaches.
But the football offered by both sides lacked creativity and conviction. The end result pointed to a growing parity in LaLiga but also to a growing fear creeping into both teams’ style of play. That might be par for the course for Atlético but Barcelona are increasingly wary of what’s going on behind them — so much so that it’s interfering with their attack.
Barcelona were stung badly against Real Betis in their last game in the league and have conceded 18 goals this season as they try desperately to find a balance at the back which will propel them forward at the same time. Atlético were without at least two of their first-choice defenders, three if you put José Giménez in that category. That tainted the game’s overall quality but suited the mattress makers in the long run. That, more than anything, defined how the action unfolded.
Diego Simeone was the braver of the two coaches in his selection and he started Thomas Lemar to partner Costa and Antoine Griezmann in attack. Ernesto Valverde left Dembélé and Rafinha on the bench in favour of the more methodical Sergi Roberto and only opted for the Brazilian when Roberto tweaked a muscle at the end of the first half.
That first half saw some decent counter-attacking from Atlético as Barcelona dominated the ball for the most part. A skewed Gerard Piqué clearance up and into the hands of Marc-André ter Stegen was the highlight of the first 45 for the red and whites. Barça, for their part, were missing a Dembélé-like figure to add that little bit of uncertainty with the home side never under excessive pressure.
The game, which barely saw a shot on target and ended with four in total, did not heat up until Costa’s back post header from a 77th minute corner. Barcelona, with nothing left to lose, finally attacked and Valverde put on Dembélé as he rolled the dice on his much-maligned World Cup winner. The 21-year-old showed his cool when Lionel Messi poked the ball out to the right before he controlled, feigned onto his left and struck home to level the score in the 90th minute.
The result, which isn’t bad for either side, will feel slightly more bitter for Atlético, who might feel they had done enough to seal all three points for the first time at home during Simeone’s reign on the bench.
Costa’s drought is officially over, but Atlético’s at home to Barcelona continues. While they move to second in LaLiga, this might look more like two points lost than a point gained when the business end of the league rolls around in May.