Are you not entertained?
Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid finally found a solution to their floundering attack. The team just need to play Barcelona’s rickety defence more often, with Marc-André Ter Stegen out injured and with nothing to lose. That’s may be a little harsh, but on Thursday night in Saudi Arabia, Atlético threw off the shackles and went for it against a side there for the taking.
This result could have been completely different, mind. Lionel Messi had a goal ruled out for a questionable handball and Gerard Piqué had one chalked off after Arturo Vidal was caught by VAR stealing a yard on Atlético’s defenders from a Messi free.
It could have been much better, too. Piqué was let off the hook for a clear penalty for handball, and Marcos Llorente thundered forward and could have scored a fourth goal put the game to bed in the dying minutes.
Yes, this is a meaningless competition which has been beaten into a strange and unnecessary version of itself. But that’s only before and after the game. During the game, things are very serious as a matter of professional and personal pride for those involved. That was clear when Barcelona went down at the start of the second half, when Atlético went behind soon after. Messi and co. then pumped balls into the penalty area late on, as though their flights home from the Middle East depended on getting a result.
The first half drifted by without incident. Atlético were under relentless pressure to end the opening 45 minutes but coped well enough — although there was a distinct feeling the mattress makers wouldn’t be able to keep it up for another 45.
Koke, who came on at the break for Héctor Herrera, scored to start the second half. It went a little something like this.
Saúl kicked off to Thomas Partey, who played it to Kieran Trippier to send forward. Samuel Umtiti headed clear and Saúl won it back from Vidal. A João Félix flick to Ángel Correa and another to Koke, who fired Atlético into the lead. The clock struck 17 seconds as the ball crossed the line.
That only seemed to lift Barcelona though, as Messi struck home five minutes later and Antoine Griezmann headed home from a rebounded Jan Oblak save — he had made a superlative effort to keep out a Luis Suárez header.
The Rojiblancos had lost their grip on the match, and that familiar feeling was back in the pit of their collective stomach. It was the same feeling they felt for the last nine games, against Luis Enrique first and more recently Ernesto Valverde — winless in all nine.
For whatever Atlético have lost defensively this season with an toward attacking reinvention, Simeone’s attackers have tried to make up for it with swagger moving forward. It doesn’t always prove productive, but on this occasion it did. Vitolo strode forward first inside the final 10 minutes and got pulled down by Neto, who was booked for the foul inside the area. Álvaro Morata slotted home the ensuing penalty as he sent the keeper the wrong way.
Atlético had travelled from Madrid to Jeddah and figured they might as well go and try to win the thing from there. Another penalty should have been awarded when Piqué handled the ball from a cross, but VAR inexplicably did not give it.
All the pouring forward soon paid off. Llorente found Morata, who poked it past Piqué to send Correa clean through. He managed to clip Neto’s hand with his shot but the ball’s momentum carried it over the line. And Atlético’s momentum would not see them denied.
Barcelona tried to respond but Valverde’s men were tanked. Call it muscle memory or just retreating with their backs to the wall, but Atlético shut Barcelona down to make it to the final on Sunday against Real Madrid.
It’s not the final Saudi Arabian fans and possibly every other neutral in the world wanted, but it’s the final Atlético deserve. Barça have to return to Spain and rethink plenty after conceding two late leads in two successive games. The Catalans’ away form continues to confuse everyone.
For Atlético, it’s the small matter of Real Madrid in a meaningless final that will mean plenty if they win. This year has not gone quite as planned. Simeone’s men sit five points off the big two and have struggled for an identity all season. Correa’s emergence and the continuation of that consistency has made Saudi Arabia a worthwhile trip regardless of the result on Sunday. The reminder that Atlético can still beat top teams is another bonus early in the new year.
This is what Atlético look like with the shackles off. This is what Atlético look like when there’s nothing to lose. It looks an awful lot like the Atlético of old, with more goals scored but the same chance against even the largest of odds.