ATM XI: Oblak, Vrsaljko (Correa 59’), Godín, Giménez, Filipe Luís (Lucas 75’), Gabi (Gameiro 66’), Thomas, Koke, Saúl, Diego Costa, Antoine Griezmann
FCB XI: ter Stegen, Roberto, Umtiti, Piqué, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta (Gomes 36’), Coutinho (Paulinho 84’), Suárez, Messi
After a tremendous surge in recent weeks, Atlético Madrid travelled to Camp Nou to face LaLiga’s leaders in Barcelona. The Catalans have had a bit of a wobble in recent weeks while los colchoneros had been brilliant in their past two matches. This match felt like a replay of one meeting in particular of these two sides in 2014, as Atlético were in their change strip of yellow. A win would have put Atleti just two points off Barça, and a draw would not have been the worst result either. However, losing really would have damaged the strong momentum Simeone’s men had built, and that result means that they must hope and pray Ernesto Valverde’s side keep messing up.
The quadruple pivot returned, with Koke and Saúl shunted to the wings. In this match, perhaps Simeone felt their defensive awareness would make up for the awkward positional fit. Atlético started the match in what could be described as predictable fashion, sitting back and inviting pressure from Barcelona. They gave away some fairly cheap set pieces, which is always nerve-wracking when Lionel Messi is taking them. It seemed that Atleti might have been targeting Andres Iniesta, who took a hefty beating from Saúl and Šime Vrsaljko and was forced off with injury on 35 minutes.
But Barcelona had taken the lead on 25 minutes when Messi scored one of his trademark free kicks after a silly foul from Thomas. There was nothing Jan Oblak could do about it, and Simeone’s plan went out the window. Atlético have rarely conceded in the first half this season, and Sunday was probably the worst day to do that. It was a chippy first half, with numerous fouls on both sides preventing the match from having any continuity. Atlético were not able to create any chances as they kept sitting off Barcelona. Oblak was called into action numerous times, with Messi and Philippe Coutinho causing the back line all sorts of problems.
After halftime, Atlético stepped up the pressure and put the screws to Barcelona. However, despite some early success, Atleti began to look vulnerable on the counter. Barça seemed content with their one-goal lead and were nowhere near as ambitious going forward as they had been in the first half. The one exception was Coutinho, who was a real thorn in Simeone’s side for 83 minutes.
A real concern was how Atlético struggled to get any attacking threat going, as even though they had the ball for long spells of the second half, they got very little production from having the ball. Simeone was not content with losing and made two very attacking substitutions, bringing on Ángel Correa for Vrsaljko (as Thomas moved to right back), and Kévin Gameiro for captain Gabi. Lucas entered later for Filipe, in a like-for-like move. Regardless of the changes, Atleti huffed and puffed but could not get the better of Samuel Umtiti or Gerard Piqué.
The moment of the match came on 85 minutes, when Correa crossed for Diego Costa, who headed down into Gameiro’s path and the Frenchman made no mistake firing it into the net. However, the assistant referee flagged for offside in an extraordinarily tight decision. And though the referee was correct, there is no way he could have possibly seen how marginally offside Costa was. Costa constantly being flagged for offside really stifled Atleti’s attack.
Ultimately, it was not to be, as Messi’s free kick proved to be the difference. It is a real shame Atlético could not get out of the match with at least a draw. Losing the head to head is a real blow, but the title is not completely gone — at this point last weekend, Atleti were seven points off top, and now they’re eight. It’s not an impossible task, but it is now out of their hands more than ever.