The Nou Camp was the stage as FC Barcelona took on Atletico Madrid in the first leg of the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League. These two teams had already met three times this season; twice in the Spanish Super Cup and once in the league at the Vicente Calderon, and on every occasion there was nothing to separate the sides.
There wasn’t too many surprises in either side, though both managers were missing important players; Tata Martino had to do without Victor Valdes, who could see his Barcelona career end rather unceremoniously as he’s set to be sidelined for seven months, he was replaced by Jose Pinto. Meanwhile Diego Simeone had to do without Raul Garcia who missed out due to suspension. He was replaced by former Barca forward David Villa, having won everything at the Catalan club during his time there spanning three years from 2010 to 2013. Simeone also went with Tiago over Mario Suarez in the midfield pivot alongside Gabi.
The inclusion of Pinto was one that was expected to weaken Barcelona, and so it proved early on when the pony-tailed shot stopper languidly cleared the ball to Arda Turan for the Turk to play in David Villa. The Spanish international however, uncharacteristically put the ball wide. An early scare for the home side, and the first twenty minutes or so saw the away side press aggressively as they normally do and stifle much of Barca’s forward play.
The game was very cagey with both sides giving nothing away. Barcelona too were surprisingly solid defensively, they were certainly helped by the midfield equaling Atleti in terms of pressing, as well as Busquets’ exemplary shielding of the back four. Gerard Pique had a good game too. The much maligned center-back has been very good in recent weeks, but he was forced off - replaced by Marc Bartra - after an aerial duel with Diego Costa saw him land awkwardly. On 25 minutes, with Barca now pressing as aggressively as the visitors, Javier Mascherano stepped up magnificently to stop an Atleti counter attack, dispossessing Diego Costa and playing the ball forward to his compatriot Leo Messi.
Barcelona’s top scorer appeared to have tangled his foot on the ball, but somehow managed to wriggle away from Miranda before playing a stupendous reverse pass into the path of Andres Iniesta, whose shot was denied by an equally brilliant last ditch block from Diego Godin.
Barcelona had control of much of the possession and were beginning to gain control of the match now too. The interplay between the forwards and the midfielders looked more effective; Iniesta, Messi and Fabregas combined for the latter to put in a cross that was ultimately too high for Neymar. That play highlighted some of the problems Barca have though.
As was expected, Atleti were very compact at the back and looked to force Barcelona out wide. This is a tactic that often works against Barcelona as the do not have tall and physically strong players to make use of crosses into the box, which is necessary when coming up against commanding defenders like Miranda and Godin. One might think that they could have played cutbacks to the edge of the area, but with the midfield and defense of Atletico positioned so close to each other, there was little chance of that strategy coming off.
Barcelona still controlled possession and were pushing for the breakthrough as they put the away side under more pressure. Things didn’t look like getting much better for Los Colchoneros when Diego Costa was forced off after suffering an injury to his knee. His fitness - and thus availability - for the match was a gamble by Simeone, and one that may well have huge repercussions for the tie as the influential striker will in all likelihood miss the second leg.
Still neither side were giving even an inch away. David Villa had another snapshot after Gabi’s quickly taken free kick had found the striker, but this time he was denied by Pinto. The two sides trudged off at half time with the scores even and the outcome of the match well in the balance. Barcelona for all their possession produced only two routine saves from Courtois, while Atleti, despite the loss of their star striker, were still a threat.
The narrative remained the same in the second half. There was hardly any space for Barcelona to maneuver with Atleti doubling up - and at times, even trebling - on their opponents. But the breakthrough finally came, somewhat against the run of play, with Atleti going in front after 11 minutes of the second half.
Diego, who replaced Diego Costa, was fouled by Iniesta near the half way line, the Brazilian however dusted himself off and received a short pass from Gabi’s free kick before turning and striking the ball from around 30 yards out. His shot swerved and went straight into the top corner, leaving Pinto absolutely gobsmacked.
Barcelona weren’t about to give up, but neither were Atletico willing to give in to pressure from the home side. Martino replaced Fabregas with the more direct Alexis Sanchez, moving Iniesta back into midfield. Iniesta was to prove influential in the equalizer when his pass picked out Neymar to bend his finish around Courtois.
Alexis’ position wide right pulled the Atleti defense wider, leaving more space between each of the four defenders, and when Barca moved the ball quickly from right to left, there was just enough space between Miranda and Juanfran for Iniesta to thread it through to Neymar. A goal that not only equaled Atleti on the scoresheet, but in terms of aesthetics too.
The equalizer sparked Barcelona to life as they went in search for the go ahead goal. If Courtois was hardly troubled prior to Neymar’s strike then after it he was kept very busy, making at least two world class saves. The first on a swerving effort from Iniesta after some neat play down the right was hurriedly cleared. Then the Belgian goalkeeper was at hand to tip Messi’s free kick around the post.
Barca huffed and puffed but the work rate and discipline of Atletico came out on top as the visitors have a vital away goal to take into the second leg in Madrid. They may be without Diego Costa however, but their performance will buoy their fans and indeed Simeone, who has drilled his side so well that they are rarely ever caught out.
Tata Martino can take positives from the way his side responded to going behind despite shading proceedings, they are certainly not out of it just yet. It all points to what will be an enthralling return leg in eight day’s time.