BARCELONA, Spain — Three quick thoughts from the Vicente Calderon as Barcelona’s 3-2 win over Atletico Madrid (4-2 on aggregate) puts the Catalans into the Copa del Rey semifinals.
1. Barcelona’s great chance to win the Copa
When the madness ended in this fantastic cup tie, around the 50th minute or so, one thing was crystal clear: Barcelona have a great chance now to win this season’s Copa del Rey.
Before the game, Luis Enrique had played down the idea that his team already had one hand on the trophy, given Atletico had eliminated holder Real Madrid. Valencia are also out, while Sevilla are 3-1 down from the first leg going into Thursday’s return game at home to Espanyol. Also left in the competition are Villarreal, Athletic Bilbao, Getafe and Malaga.
Barca did not win a trophy in 2013-14, something that rankled fans and pundits who had grown accustomed to regular silverware throughout the past decade. Talisman Lionel Messi also appeared upset by going a full calendar year without a trophy, something that also hurt his Ballon d’Or chances and reportedly led to him considering his future. The positions of Luis Enrique and president Josep Maria Bartomeu, up for re-election this summer, would also be strengthened by a trophy.
This was also important as it was another victory against Atletico. Last season, these teams met six times and the Catalans were not able to better Diego Simeone’s intense and aggressive side once. Three goals in the first 45 minutes here was all Barca managed in total over those six meetings last term. Luis Enrique is now on three wins from three over Atleti in recent weeks. These results have ended, for now at least, the debate that had sprung up over his future at the club.
The Copa remains the third-biggest priority for the Catalan club, but securing the first trophy of the season would be significant for pretty much everyone around the Camp Nou.
2. Atletico went toe-to-toe but lost control
There was something fantastic about Fernando Torres opening the game with an even-better, even-quicker goal than the one he scored inside the first minute at Real Madrid in the previous round.
Torres took one touch to turn inside marker Javier Mascherano and another to whack the ball low to the net from the edge of the area. Just 38 seconds had been played and the returning El Nino had done it again. Barca had not conceded in open play during their last six games. Atletico had not looked like scoring at all during last week’s first leg. But the tie was all square again.
The supercharged Torres was soon bursting past Mascherano, shouldering Gerard Pique off the ball, winning headers over whoever Barca put on him and slipping passes for strike partner Antoine Griezmann to run onto. His teammates were piling forward, with the home fans roaring them on, and Barca’s recently watertight defence was leaking. Griezmann had a super chance from a Guilherme Siqueira cross but sent a weak volley straight at Marc-Andre Ter Stegen when unmarked eight yards out.
The whirlwind nature of the game also seemed to take a toll on referee Jesus Gil Manzano. At 1-1, Juanfran nutmegged Mascherano on the edge of the box then went to the ground well inside the box. It was probably not even a foul, definitely not inside the area, but the ref called a penalty, which Raul Garcia thumped in for a 2-1 advantage.
Amid the excitement was a total loss of control. Atletico’s (legitimate to an extent) consternation at being denied a penalty at 2-2 for a Jordi Alba handball went too far. Captain Gabi was sent off for something said in the tunnel at halftime.
Early in the second period, Arda Turan hurled a boot in the direction of a linesman, who ducked out of the way. Gil Manzano did not see intent to harm, and the Turkish playmaker received just a yellow. This was the latest in an erratic performance by the officials, who during the first half might have given Barca a penalty for a shove on Luis Suarez by centre-back Jose Maria Gimenez. There was no energy left for complaints when Atletico’s Mario Suarez saw a second yellow late for a foul on Messi, leaving his team to finish the game with nine players.
Simeone’s Atletico have based much of their recent success on an ability to close a vise-like grip around games. Tonight they tried to take on Barca toe-to-toe in an open encounter and ended up floored.
3. Barca’s front three killed on the counter
During that helter-skelter first 45 minutes, Barca’s defence did rock at times, but their South American superstar front three was also able to hit back with counterpunches that killed off the tie.
The key goal was probably the first equaliser, just six minutes after Torres had scored, when Messi and Suarez combined brilliantly on the break. Neymar was sent racing through on goal, and he finished calmly and expertly. That away goal probably removed any idea of sitting back from Atletico minds, for better or worse.
Barca’s midfield was not able to get a hold of the ball and take the sting out of the game, as the benched Xavi would have done in previous years. But trailing 2-1 on the night, Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic did combine to win a corner, which was knocked comically into his own net by Atletico centre-back Miranda.
Barca’s third goal was another counter, with Messi’s lovely lifted ball sending Alba around the back of the Atletico defence and Neymar having a simple task to knock home the cross. The Brazilian might have had a hat trick from Ter Stegen’s superb long pass, only for a debatable offside call. While the spotlight has been on Messi’s sensitive brilliance and Suarez’s struggles in front of goal, the youngest of the trident has scored 21 goals in 25 games this season without taking penalties.
Both teams seemed to accept the tie was over early in the second half. Atletico went into damage-limitation mode. Barca had less space to break into but were happy to hold the ball and run down the clock. Their big hitters up front had already done enough damage, refereeing decisions notwithstanding, for Luis Enrique’s team to take a big step toward silverware this season.