They say that styles make fights — and these two teams in their purest, distilled forms have very distinct styles with contrasting concepts. But neither of these teams are playing in the ways that made them famous. Barcelona can’t figure out how to get the best out of Antoine Griezmann or overcome their woes away from the Camp Nou, and Atlético Madrid don’t really know how they want to attack.
“We want to score more goals and be more aggressive in both penalty areas, which is where the games are resolved,” Diego Simeone said ahead of this game. And it was in Barcelona’s penalty area where most of the early action took place.
Mario Hermoso was the first to trouble Marc-Andre Ter Stegen when he drilled a shot to the back post. It took a deflection and hit the base of that post. He went close again with a side-footed effort but Ter Stegen pulled off a magic trick to keep it out.
This was Atlético’s game to lose after 20 minutes, but slowly their grip started to loosen. Barcelona found space in behind defenders and that made Atlético as aware as ever of the threat they posed. Those early missed chances were a reminder of how many chances the Rojiblancos actually need to put one away — and a remind that the story of Atlético’s season is the story of a faltering attack and a defence struggling to keep up.
Ter Stegen rejected the hosts again when Álvaro Morata rose highest to head down a corner. But by that stage, Barcelona had taken the initiative — Gerard Piqué hit the crossbar and the visitors were starting to feel more at home.
The second half was more of the same as Barcelona had wiped out any Atlético attacking threat. Morata tried but was on his own, and João Félix was eager but too far from the dangerous areas where he tends to work his magic.
The best chance of the half came close to the hour mark when Morata broke down the left and found Thomas Partey. Instead of shooting, the Ghanaian sought out Félix to his right but saw his pass blocked. Ángel Correa picked up the rebound and Atlético won a corner from the blocked shot — sounds tame because it was tame.
There was a distinct feeling that Atlético were quite content with a draw. It remained to be seen whether Simeone’s men could hang on for even that (spoiler — they couldn’t). Luis Suárez went close after a flowing counter that saw Sergi Roberto swing the ball out to the left. It was handy for Jan Oblak in the end, though.
Atlético’s last vestige of hope, Joao Felix, was taken off after the hour and a section of the home fans weren’t happy. Simeone, a manager battling with the idea that he is a defensive coach and only a defensive coach, was left with no other option though. Felix, at 20 and coming off an ankle injury, is still a work in progress rather than the work of art he was billed as upon his arrival.
It did help, however, as Atlético looked like a threat again. Vitolo sent a ball into the box that could have easily been turned home. Correa sent it back in when it came out the other side, and then Kieran Trippier drove a shot in that was blocked too.
Lionel Messi ran from the right on 85 minutes after picking it up from Frenike De Jong. He played a neat one-two with Suárez and scored a trademark curl into the bottom corner. The life was sucked out of the Wanda Metropolitano in a manner that only Lionel Messi can create. The inevitable, regardless of it being inevitable, had happened. Atlético were stunned and needed longer than what was left on the clock to score.
Even if they had an hour, we’re not entirely sure they would have managed it. But so it goes. Atletico sit six points adrift of Sunday rivals and Real Madrid. The Wanda emptied quickly on the full time whistle as fans bustled back out to the rain.
For long spells, Atlético matched Barcelona, but they were left to rue the chances they couldn’t take. As inevitable as Messi’s winner was, the missed chances are becoming more predictable for Simeone’s side.
And it feels like they don’t know how to fix it.