Barcelona control Spanish title race after comeback win vs. Atletico Madrid
BARCELONA, Spain -- Three points from Barcelona's 2-1 victory Saturday over Atletico Madrid in La Liga.
1. Barca take control in title race
Atletico Madrid began Saturday afternoon's clash of the top of the La Liga table at the Camp Nou as the better team, but by the end, a Lionel Messi-inspired Barcelona had taken control of the Spanish title race.
In recent meetings, this, and not the more traditional Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid, has really been La Liga's biggest domestic clash. Two years ago Atletico came to the Camp Nou and got the result they needed to lift the trophy. January 2015 was the first time Luis Enrique's Barca "clicked," with all three South American superstars scoring and the team then accelerating away to take the title.
On Saturday, goals from Messi and Luis Suarez -- and red cards for Filipe Luis and Diego Godin -- brought a result that means it now looks very likely Barca will go on and win the league again.
Luis Enrique's side did not start so well, however, with the early-afternoon kickoff not helping the atmosphere inside the ground. Atletico deservedly went ahead on just 10 minutes when Koke was unmarked 10 yards out and finished excellently from a flicked-on right-flank cross. Barca took a while to get going in response, but the tide slowly turned. Suarez had his team's first shot on target 28 minutes in, and just two minutes later Messi expertly equalised. Soon afterward the turnaround was complete, with Uruguay forward Suarez holding off countryman Jose Maria Gimenez and slotting past Atletico keeper Jan Oblak.
The dismissals either side of the break should have left the visitors two men down and totally out. But even in the 89th minute Atletico had hope, with keeper Oblak sent forward for a last-gasp free kick into the box.
The performance might have been mixed, but the result leaves Barca three points ahead of Atletico (with a game in hand) and third-place Real Madrid a further four points back ahead of Los Blancos' home banker against Espanyol on Sunday evening. It looks like a commanding position.
2. Lionel Messi leads his side
As has been the case so often against Atletico (and, well, pretty much all other teams), Messi was the match-winner for Barca on Saturday. Even before he had equalised, Messi was dropping deep to get involved in the play and help get Barca back on the front foot after a difficult start.
The finish for his first goal was also unerring, as he found space 10 yards out and clinically side-footed home Jordi Alba's cross -- the first goal Oblak had conceded in 483 minutes of La Liga action.
Messi now has 25 goals in 28 games against Atletico; he has scored more often against the Calderon club than anyone else. Proof that he had unnerved his opponents came just before half-time when Atletico left-back Luis was deservedly shown a straight red card for a studs-up challenge on the No. 10's knee.
On a day when some of Barca's stars -- in particular Neymar and Andres Iniesta -- did not really shine, this was a real leader's performance from Messi. There were huge cheers in the first half when he worked back to dispossess Augusto Fernandez as the new Atletico midfielder thought about shooting. After the break, the crowd were delighted again when he closed down Antoine Griezmann to stop an Atletico break after he himself had taken a Barca corner.
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This was true leadership from Messi, who also rescued Barca with the winner at Malaga last week. His team are not firing on all cylinders at the moment, but the world's best player is seeing them through.
3. Simeone's side pay for indiscipline
Twenty minutes into this game, it seemed as if manager Diego Simeone's plan was working. Atletico were 1-0 up, playing much the better football and looking the more likely winners.
Simeone's Atletico famously won the 2013-14 La Liga title at the Camp Nou on the final day and also eliminated Tata Martino's Barca side from that season's Champions League. However since Luis Enrique (and Suarez) arrived the next summer, things have changed considerably.
This was a very different Atletico side from the one of two years back, with just five of the team that won La Liga in Saturday's starting XI. Attacking midfielders Saul Niguez and Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco were not around when the title was won, but both were excellent through the opening stages as a new-look Colchoneros team appeared to be on the brink of a breakthrough.
A sign that things were not going the visitors' way though were the yellow cards, piling up for Godin (23rd minute), Gabi (24th minute) and Juanfran (41st minute) as the game progressed. Filipe's straight red just before half-time showed they were cracking.
Even still, Atletico showed character after the break, with Carrasco exceptional again and Griezmann only denied by point-blank Claudio Bravo save with his trailing leg. Soon afterward, though, Godin picked up his second yellow for a late challenge on Suarez, and the visitors were down to nine men. Augusto soon being stretchered off just made things even worse.
Atletico continued to battle, and Oblak was not worked at all in the second half, but Simeone has now lost all six of his head-to-heads with Luis Enrique over the past two seasons even though in a way, this was his team's best showing over those games.
Saturday's defeat completes a bad week for Atletico, which also saw them eliminated from the Copa del Rey by Celta Vigo on Wednesday. The Champions League now looks tp be their most likely route to success this term.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.