Silencing the Big Guns

Endless celebrations: the team from Vicente Calderón prevailed again.

The tradition continues. Since the competition has been rebranded to ‘Champions League’, it never saw anyone successfully defending the trophy – and it won’t see that this year either. That fate has been decided yesterday, when treble-holders from Barcelona fell victim to a stubborn Atlético resistance. And although it didn’t happen without certain controversies involved, it was all in all, a fair result for both parties involved.

Let’s remember: if there was ever anyone very much poised to win it all two years in a row, it was Barça. A month ago, after taking out Arsenal in the UCL quarterfinals, the Catalans were on a 38-game long undefeated streak during which they’d score a whooping 120 goals while conceding 21 and keeping 19 clean sheets. Even Messi’s injury back in the late 2015 would not stop them: with Luis Suárez reaching his absolute peak form, Blaugrana were battering one opponent after another.

30 days later, the team has managed to throw away a 2-0 lead at El Madrigal to one of the most defensively-minded opponent in La Liga; got thoroughly outplayed in the second half of home derby against Real Madrid; narrowly beat Atlético in the UCL first-leg following a 0-1 deficit; visited the cursed grounds of Anoeta and lost there once again after a dismal performance; and finally, crashed out of the Champions League by allowing a team with 28.2% ball possession to score two goals past ter Stegen, thus reversing the aggregate score.

What was even more disturbing, all those games saw an abrupt decline of the MSN attacking trident – a formation which used to produce more goals alone than most of the European professional teams through the whole season. In the last five games, all they did was a penalty converted by Neymar at Villarreal and Luis Suárez’s second-half brace at home to Atlético. Coincidentally, those 45 Camp Nou minutes were the only period when FCB looked like utterly dominant beasts – and who knows how they’d come off if Fernando Torres didn’t reduce his team to 10 men earlier that day.

Last night, Suárez surfaced only once, in 71st minute, when he furiously fouled his Uruguayan compatriot Diego Godín and received a yellow card. It’s been an awfully quiet evening for the ex-Liverpool striker, who’s managed only 24 touches on the ball – at least two times less than nine of his teammates. Out of this, virtually non-existent service, Barça’s #9 has produced just two shots (both saved by Oblak) and two aerial duels (both lost to the impeccable Atlético’s centre-back partnership). For a world-class forward playing against the team that lacked one first-choice defender (Giménez strained his hamstring against Gijón three weeks ago) – this is a bit of an embarrassment.

As this was going on, Lionel Messi, the 2015 Golden Ball winner and arguably the greatest footballer on the planet was having his own problems. Eleven days earlier, a massive leak of Panamanian confidential documents has sparked another accusation over Leo’s taxpaying as one of the inactive companies described in the leaks has been linked to his name. On Tuesday, Messi’s arch-rival Cristiano Ronaldo has single-handedly pulled Real Madrid back from a two-goal deficit against Wolfsburg, only putting more competitive pressure on the Argentinian, whose form has been in doubt at least for a while.

One of the least memorable moments of Messi’s illustrious career.

At Vicente Calderón, the man in question responded to all that with several missed shots – including the miskicked last-minute free-kick that closely resembled the one he failed to convert in the 2014 World Cup final. There was a distinct lack of vitality in his play, as he’d win only three of 7 dribbles he attempted and created just a single goalscoring chance for his teammates. 23 minutes in, he performed what it turned out to be his most fruitful action of the game, helping out Dani Alves to steal the ball from Carrasco on Barcelona’s own half. The Argentinian’s goalscoring record has stopped at 499 and doesn’t really want to improve…

This slump was a direct continuation of the problems Blaugrana best goalscorers already experienced against Sociedad. Interestingly, it started right after the international break, when both Messi and Suárez spent almost a week travelling overseas for the World Cup qualifiers. In these games, Leo assisted Gabriel Mercado’s winning goal against Chile and converted a penalty in a 2-0 win over Bolivia; at the same time, Suárez bagged an equalizer for Uruguay against Brazil. Unfortunately, this was the rare instance when those two played better for their country than for their club – and after that, even though early reports suggested Leo’s injury, the truth is, he and the forward he’s been feeding with assists this season, have both simply faded away.

But if it’s the international fixtures what caused the crisis, then what can be said about Neymar, who’s been banned from few Brazil matches following his Copa America sending off? The most he could do yesterday was firing an outlandishly long shot from 30 yards out, saved smoothly by Oblak. He might have been just a tad better than his older attacking partners but not nearly good enough to reverse the flow of the game once it took a crash course.

Obviously, in this grim landscape, one bright thing that will be endlessly discussed is: why Nicola Rizzoli didn’t award Barcelona a clear penalty for Gabi’s handball seconds before the final whistle. That very moment will be remembered as a flash of remarkable irony, as the one whose pass has been stopped against the rules – Iniesta – should have been sent off earlier for another handball that stopped Atlético’s clear goalscoring opportunity. The referee though the misconduct happened outside of the penalty box and awarded a freekick. Big mistake – but does it really invalidate how poor the visitors really were?

The answer, of course, is: no. Drama aside, the team with 72% ball possession should’ve done much more to at least score one goal and take the tie to the extra time. It should be piling up the pressure on the hosts from the moment they’ve conceded the first goal instead of waiting for the final 15 minutes to do so. And, above everything else – it should do much better job at marking Griezmann’s 1-0 header instead of having one player about 5 yards in front of him and another players three yards behind! It was truly a Newcastle United-level moment by Gerard Pique and Dani Alves.

As of Atlético – Diego Simeone might have been compared to José Mourinho in the past but it doesn’t seem valid anymore. While his spiritual predecessor crashed out of Chelsea and the apprentice continues to upset two main Spanish giants – it is safe to say that Los Colchoneros’ manager has surpassed the stardom of his Portuguese colleague. If Mou’s Chelsea and Inter used to twist and squirm under the unbearable Barcelona’s pressure, Simeone’s Atlético have learned to endure it graciously. Hell, Diego has even found the holes in a supposedly superior FCB tactics that everybody else was in awe of. For a defensively-oriented manager, that is a gigantic achievement.

Apart from a hair-rising second half at Camp Nou earlier this month, Simeone must be really happy about how disciplined his players are at keeping the defensive shape. Regardless of what was going on in their defensive third, there was absolutely no panic among his lads and the tactic of aggressively winning the ball back only when it arrives in the dangerous areas not only allowed Rojiblancos to conserve the energy but also disarmed the visitors’ most powerful weapon: the short passes. Without the slightest bit of freedom to run into space or poach on a creative pass, Barcelona were restricted to either long shots or crosses – two elements the team doesn’t really feel that comfortable at.

That euphoria rush after creating an immovable object.

Meanwhile, the hosts continued to launch very quick breaks based on the pace of Carrasco and Griezmann. The Frenchman was on fire again, showing a deadly efficiency of a forward in a game, where he cannot expect many chances to arise. During the match, he had ball to his feet for roughly 100 seconds, made just 13 passes out of which only seven reached the target, won two tackles, worked the keeper two times with shots and scored two goals. That’s basically it – about enough to get his club in the semifinal. Will it be enough to take a centre-forward spot for France after it’s been vacated by Karim Benzema? Possibly…

But the goal #1 at the moment is returning back to where Los Colchoneros have already been two years ago: the Champions League final. The road to it goes through either Real Madrid (who’ve lost four out of the last 8 games to Simeone’s team), Bayern Munich (who tactically are very similar to Barcelona thanks to Pep Guardiola) or Manchester City (who still have a difficult Premier League campaign on their hands). In each scenario, Diego’s gang comes off as underdogs – but they’re still the most challenging, hard-working and bloodthirsty underdogs in the entire footballing world.

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