Atlético Madrid secured a landmark victory over FC Barcelona on Saturday night, with Thomas Lemar and Luis Suárez nabbing rare first-half goals to give Atlético their first two-goal lead at half-time over the Catalans this century.
Those strikes turned out to be enough, and it marked a magnificent turnaround for Atlético, who were beaten by LaLiga’s bottom team Alavés only a week ago but have since secured a comeback win over AC Milan and now beaten Barcelona.
It was also a noteworthy occasion as the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano was allowed 100 percent capacity for the first time since March 2020, with 60,594 fans in attendance creating a raucous atmosphere from start to finish.
One of the crucial factors behind the victory, according to coach Diego Simeone, was the fans’ return.
“When we arrived at the stadium in the bus and saw the number of people had increased, we got emotional,” Simeone said. “Seeing the stadium full again is marvellous, people cheered us on through the whole game and luckily we could give them joy in the form of a win over Barcelona.”
Defender José María Giménez also spoke about the atmosphere, describing it as “beautiful, divine, gorgeous,” as he added that, “we missed these sell-outs, this triumph is dedicated to the fans.”
Simeone’s approach was also clear in looking to make the most of Barcelona’s defensive weaknesses.
“Through order we controlled the game and took advantage of spaces,” he explained. “In other games, teams have been deeper and we’ve found that difficult.”
It’s a tactical point João Félix agreed with.
“We knew that Barcelona would give us space to play,” he analysed. “They’re not in a good moment, but it’s Barcelona and things can change in one game. We had a lot of space, we know if I had the ball and turned, we could create chances.”
The star men
The Portuguese forward was one of two that Simeone highlighted as star performers.
“[Thomas] Lemar makes me very happy,” he said. “If you add goals to his consistency from last season…When he had his one-on-one, I said to myself, ‘Score!’
“I liked João a lot the other day too, that’s why he started. We expect him to play like he did in the first half, he’s a player who has the potential to become a real great, that’s what we need from him. When the first half ended, I went over to João and told him, ‘that’s what you need to do’.”
The 21-year-old was also pleased with his performance, but in true Atlético style, seemed to want more.
“I was good, but I need a goal,” he admitted. “I think people enjoyed it, but I want to carry on like that. The fans were incredible, we missed that.”
The forward also addressed one of the key talking points of late surrounding Atleti’s record of turning up to win games late on.
“We needed to win,” he responded. “If it was in the 90th minute, it would have been good for us too. We prefer to resolve games earlier, but every match is different.”
What turned out to be the decisive goal came from Luis Suárez, up against his former club. The Uruguayan appeared to ask for forgiveness as he celebrated.
“I’m happy for the win for the team, it’s what we wanted,” Suárez said. “The rival is special for the moments I lived there, but my work is to dedicate 100 percent to Atlético. I knew that if I scored, I’d ask for forgiveness, for the respect, affection, because I’m another Culé, for the journey I had in Barcelona, for the moment my teammates are having there is difficult, and for the fans.”
From the Barcelona side
Meanwhile under-pressure coach Ronald Koeman stuck up for his team.
“We deserved more, but like almost always, games are decided by moments and we didn’t make the most of our chances,” Koeman said.
That wasn’t to say that he didn’t hold back in his criticism, though. The Dutchman tore into 19-year-old Nico Gónzalez as he said, “for the goals, we left a lot of space and in the first goal Nico didn’t mark Lemar. In midfield you have to follow your marker, that’s unacceptable.”
Gerard Piqué was also insistent that Barcelona had not played badly, rather suggesting that Atleti had got a slice of fortune.
“Lemar stole possession, João Félix received the ball and Ronald Araújo just kept going and generated an overload because he left space,” the veteran defender said.
“We started well, we went after them, we were brave, [then] they got on top,” he added. “They scored two goals from very little and, from then on, we could’ve spent three hours and not scored a goal. The issue is difficult. It’s complicated. We are suffering, I have to be honest. We have to keep fighting, working, rest and disconnect, and come back stronger.”