Scores! This time, Neymar’s two goals were overshadowed by Atletico’s craziness.
Yesterday, things have spun out of control. The hell broke loose. The shenanigans went crazy. Shit got real and hit the fan immediately afterwards. After dozens and dozens of absolutely controlled, calculated, cynical performances against Real Madrid and Barcelona, Atletico finally winged it and managed to play such a ridiculous, uncompromising, volatile game, Diego Simeone was most likely having hard time recognizing his players out there. After all, it was still Atletico – the team that scores few and concedes even fewer; the team that puts two hard-working defensive midfielders in the middle of the park and defends, defends, defends. Trailing 0-1 on aggregate and having the home advantage in a rematch, it was a fair assumption that Los Colchoneros will continue to fight tenaciously and hope to catch that one break, one counterattack that will tie the overall score and land them in the extra time. And after Fernando Torres just did that two minutes into the game – it was bound to happen; it had to happen.
But it didn’t. I don’t know what was in the air over Vicente Calderon’s ground that night, but whatever it was, it drove people insane. All started with Cristian Ansaldi running late, arriving to the stadium and unexpectedly meeting with policemen. Frustrated with cops asking for his documents when the game was soon about to start, the Argentinian slam a car door into one of the pigs, causing no damage, but voluntarily getting arrested in the process. Taken to the custody, the full-back missed the entire game and was spared the sight of two red cards for his teammates, four or five penalty controversies and Arda Turan furiously throwing his right boot at the linesman, supposedly being fed up with the incompetence of the man. Dispossessed by the constant pressure of two Barcelona players, the Turkish Leonidas was convinced that he’s been constantly fouled without any reaction from the officials – and he went bonkers. Bonkers. Purposedly missing the other guy’s head by a whisker, he has nevertheless earned a red card. He had to be sent off. Right?
But he wasn’t. Before I get to the details of the game: it has to be said that this game was one of the poorest and most cowardly refereed games I’ve seen this season. Mister Jesus Gil Manzano not only made the wrong calls – such as a penalty for Atletico and not calling the fouls on Turan – he also had no authority over the players. It was one of the cases, where an average ref, thrown into the fray, starts hiding behind hastily brandished yellow cards which only make players feel like they got served with injustice and subsequently instigate fouls and dirty play. Eventually, the yellows were replaced by reds, the players continued the perpetuating circle of violent challenges and the game, as open as it was because of the result getting completely out of control – became a parody of a tactical football aimed at getting the right scoreline. Make no mistake about it: I’m not complaining. It’s good to see old, good melee combat with both teams fairly chaotic. It’s always entertaining. Unfortunately, when that happens, usually the team that prevails is the team that has more skilled individuals – and, in case of Barcelona and Atletico – it could only be one team.
Who would’ve though that it will all start with an innocent long ball from Javier Mascherano to Leo Messi? The two Argentinians usually work well together, but this time, the aerial pass to Leo was highly inaccurate and Siqueira – who’s been dealing with Barca’s star quite competently all through the game – got first at the end of it. Normally, it would’ve been just a clearance and a good one as well – yet, this time, the ball was instantly transported right to the middle of the pitch. Now, it was time for Torres to show his intelligence. At first, he was just closing down Mascherano. However, as soon as the ball was knocked far away, he moved into the middle of the pitch, leaving the Argentinian in no-man’s land and staying just far enough from Pique to not be picked up by him either. Once Mascherano’s marking responsibilities kicked in again, he was already left for dead because he had to approach Torres from the left instead of frontally – and dribbling past the defender who’s severly out of position is a piece of cake for any class striker. Torres did his job and finished it with style, off the post, no chance for Ter-Stegen whatsoever. Another goal from him against top opposition. Why did he ever leave Madrid?
Soon after that, though, something inexplicable happened. During one of their left-wing attacks, Atletico had no less than six players in front of the ball carried by Griezmann. The Frenchman, who had a very bad game and was subbed off later, crossed poorly in to the box and the ball was cleared by Pique. The rebound fell to Messi, who dropped deep for it and passed it quickly to Suarez down the right wing. Already at this point, Atletico was in a terrible shape. Miranda, who had no idea what’s going on behind his back, opted to wait for the opponent to run at him instead of attacking him immediately. Little did he know, that the marking in the middle of the pitch has been non-existent and thus, Suarez is going to have a free hand to make a key pass towards Neymar. The Brazilian, who was marking Juanfran in front of Barcelona’s penalty area just few seconds ago, has made at least 100-metres sprint from his own half to the other box, left Atletico’s right-back comfortably behind his back and placed a nice shot in the corner of Oblak’s goal. Nice, but… who the hell pushes six players upfront? Because if anyone does it, certainly, it isn’t Atletico we know and admire.
Diego Simeone: I have no idea what they’re doing…
Once the game was tied 1-1, it would’ve been fairly easy job for Barcelona to drive the needed result home. All they needed to do was leaving Neymar floating upfront for a counterattacking threat, put Messi wide to support him and use all remaining players to kill the game defensively. And so they tried – but, surprise, surprise – they’re not Chelsea. Their lack of proper organisation came into play when Juanfran freely picked up the ball down the right wing, ran past Alba and Neymar, who both only pretended to be marking him. Then, he ran into Mascherano, nutmegging him. The Argentinian had to take the guy out and to do it outside of the penalty area. And so he did – just in the nick of time. However, it was also the time for the dreadful Manzano, who struck back and rewarded Atletico with a penalty – a decision that made Juanfran hit the pitch with a fist several times in ecstasy. Raul Garcia buried the spot kick with ease and we the game was swiftly back in the state of chaos, as the advance of one or the other team was hanging in balance.
Now, to digress: I have no doubts top Spanish clubs are currently stronger than their main rivals from, say England or Italy. After all, Atletico and Real clearly conquered Champions League last season. However, when it comes to defending set-pieces, La Liga sides’ could learn a lot from Chelsea, Juventus, Man City… Whether it’s the result of relative lack of height among the teams, the product of player indecisiveness, the skill of corner and free-kick takers or just pure luck – Spanish teams do screw up when they’re facing crosses in their penalty area. This game wasn’t a difference: early on, Rakitić forced Oblak to seriously stretch himself while one of Atletico’s corners ended with two consecutive headers from Colchoneros’ players of which second went just wide. So, when eventually another corner was played to Sergio Busquets and he flicked the ball in the middle only to see Miranda clearing it straight into his own net – it was hardly a surprise. Let’s face it: this Brazilian centre-back does not cut it anymore. As long as his shortcomings were covered by Diego Godin, he looked fairly okay. Yesterday, without the Uruguayan, who’s been suspended for yellow cards, Miranda crumbled under pressure.
Alas, the true controversy came seconds before the half-time. Another good run by Siqueira, another cross, Griezmann shots and the ball bounces off Alba’s arm. Penalty? No. For the first time, Mr Manzano makes the right call and interprets that as a fair shot blocking. And what happens? The ball goes to Messi – just as it did before the first goal. Messi dribbles down the right wing – just as he did before the first goal. The pass goes to a player running from depths of the pitch (previously: Neymar, this time: Alba) – as it did before the first goal. And then – the goal is scored. Copy-paste. An absolute copy of the previous misery the home team brought on themselves. Again, Atletico’s tracking back might’ve existed, but it was too slow and too detached from the intruders raiding their penalty box to really work. But honestly: why would it work? Why a team that lives off sitting deep and never getting caught on a counterattack would suddenly be good at something they’re never forced to do? No. Such task was impossible. If anything, they should’ve known better. They should’ve kept passing instead of exposing themselves. But again – that’s just not their thing.
By the time Neymar scored his second, the game was already over. All that was left of it was a comic value of the highest quality since Brazil’s 1-7 crash to Germany. The circus in town opened it’s tents when Jordi Alba, in a typical stroke of genius, tried to get back on the pitch by running under linesman’s extended arm and got hit in the head once the guy decided to stop waving for the throw-in. Alba, obviously not knowing what hit him, went down like he was shot, thinking it is a clear red for anyone who assaulted him. This time – it wasn’t. Later, the same ref experienced the wrath of Turan. The Turk’s aiming was impeccable: he deliberately threw his shoe over linesman’s head, just to let out his frustration without doing any harm. And, guess what? He wasn’t sent off! No red card. It can only be speculated that Manzano already felt it might be one red too many, as he has already expulsed Gabi during the half-time brawl, plus there was another sending off lurking in the future – for Mario Suarez. But this all together… it was just a comedy. After all, how a team that can’t win anymore and has a half-time to get over it, still decides to be stupid and risk the suspension for future games? Baffling.
After a second half of Barca’s utter dominance – they’ve improved their ball possession to 73 percent – Blaugrana finally wrapped up the game with a 3-2 win. This period is not even worth mentioning: basically, at one point, Atletico’s heads cooled off, they’ve realised nothing can really be done other than not conceding anymore. Thus they closed the shop and the Catalans went through, to Copa del Rey semifinal. Considering that their most dangerous rival in it now – Sevilla – is currently down two goals to Espanyol before second leg; and that the remaining teams out there are: Villarreal, Athletic, Malaga and Getafe – FCB is potentially cruising towards a minor trophy. A good test of what they’re up to will happen in February, in La Liga fixtures, as Barca shall face… yes, Villarreal first (their likely rival in CdRs semifinal), and then, Athletic and Malaga – two other potential contenders. To beat these, Barca is going to need in-form Neymar on the pitch. The question is: can he evade multiple bookings with as provocative attitude as in yesterday’s game?