BARCELONA — Three things from the Camp Nou as Lionel Messi’s late penalty saw it finish Barcelona 1-0 Atletico Madrid in Wednesday night’s Copa del Rey quarterfinal first leg.
1. Messi penalty decides tight and tense game
A surprisingly fast and intense start from Barcelona blitzed Atletico in their La Liga meeting here 10 days ago. Diego Simeone’s side shocked Real Madrid in their Copa last 16 return game last week, with the tie’s key goal coming inside the opening 60 seconds. This was more of a tight, tense battle, with neither team risking too much, but Atletico’s skirting the line of the law eventually brought their downfall.
Simeone had said pregame that he did not want to be hemmed back and forced to defend deep, and he picked a relatively attack-minded side, including Fernando Torres and Antoine Griezmann up front. Both attackers were removed for more physical alternatives in Atletico’s first two substitutions, and as the minutes ticked by the visitors found themselves defending more frantically.
Barcelona coach Luis Enrique stuck with what he now seems to have decided — very reasonably — is his best side. They did start very brightly, with Messi again looking very switched on. However, Messi’s one decent first-half chance was volleyed too high from a tight angle, and the game reached halftime without too much incident. The space that the Argentine had found during their recent La Liga clash was not available to him here as Atletico closed up their lines expertly.
The low-key atmosphere was not helped by a relatively small crowd for a 10 p.m. local-time kickoff on a freezing cold January night, although Barcelona did claim a 62,225 crowd. The locals were warmed by two typical driving Messi and Neymar runs early in the second period, but neither came to anything. The loudest noise was generally for referee Jose Luis Gonzalez Gonzalez, a sign of there being little else to get excited about.
Atletico were sailing close to the wind at times, and Barca’s players grew increasingly frustrated as the tight decisions appeared to go with the visitors. Both Suarez and Javier Mascherano were booked for disputing calls by Jose Luis Gonzalez Gonzalez as the game entered its closing stages. Luis Enrique was also enraged when a possible handball by Atletico midfielder Arda Turan on the edge of the area was ignored.
Then came the penalty incident with just six minutes left that decided the first leg. Messi’s 25-yard free kick smashed into the Atletico wall, and in the ensuing battle for possession the referee ruled that Juanfran had taken out Sergio Busquets. Cue more protests from Atletico, with Colchoneros captain Gabi being shown a yellow.
Messi took the spot kick himself, and visiting keeper Jan Oblak guessed the right way, only for the ball to fall nicely for Messi to tap the ball to the net for the game’s only goal. The on-pitch celebrations and roars from the home fans were tinged with relief, and Barca will take a useful advantage into the second leg.
2. Suarez vs. Torres a technical draw
The penalty aside, the game’s two best openings fell to each team’s former Liverpool front man. But neither Suarez nor Fernando Torres were able to take advantage.
On 36 minutes, a lovely cushioned-first time pass from Ivan Rakitic left Suarez in the clear inside the area. The Uruguayan let the ball bounce, but then volleyed widely over the bar from just 8 yards. He immediately fell to his knees and covered his face in his hands. It was a poor miss, and everyone knew it, although the Camp Nou crowd immediately chanted his name in support.
Earlier in the game another excellent pass, this time from Dani Alves, had also appeared to send Suarez through on goal, but this time his touch was too heavy and the chance disappeared. The 80 million euro summer signing was again working hard off the ball, and making runs to open up space for Messi and Neymar, but in front of goal his confidence looks very low right now.
Torres’ spirits should be sky-high following his double at the Bernabeu in the last round of the Copa. The returning Colchoneros fans’ hero was generally well-shackled by former Anfield teammate Mascherano, but a mix-up in the Barca defence did present him with a fine opportunity just after the Suarez miss. He looked to be in the clear from halfway, but the almost-31-year-old did not trust his legs to sprint free. An attempt to instead find zippier strike partner Griezmann faltered as the fast-recovering Gerard Pique was able to get back and intercept.
Torres has generally managed 60 minutes in his appearances since his return in January, but Simeone removed him at the break here, sending on Mario Mandzukic for the second half. Suarez had almost as little impact on the rest of the game, with his most noticeable contribution being regular tussles with his compatriot Diego Godin, and regular complaints to officials that just ended with a yellow card for dissent.
That about summed up the night for the two ex-Liverpool men.
3. Both young keepers coming good
With both coaches naming more or less full-strength XIs, there was extra interest in the goalkeepers, with La Liga backups Marc Andre ter Stegen and Oblak getting another chance to shine in a cup competition. After summer arrivals, both 22-year-olds have had remarkably similar starts to their careers in Spain. And both put in competent showings here, even if neither was fully tested during the 90 minutes.
A minor back injury picked up preseason put Ter Stegen on the bench after arriving for 12 million euros from Borussia Monchengladbach, with fellow new signing Claudio Bravo preferred. In the German’s first high-profile game, he conceded three times at Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, but he has now conceded only twice in his other nine appearances so far (albeit he was not really tested against Huesca or Elche in the Copa).
Being a Barca keeper is famously testing, with the team’s long-standing weaknesses defending corners and free kicks a particular problem. Atletico’s ability to convert such set pieces is one of their strengths, but Ter Stegen’s defence dealt pretty easily with them here. The German easily claimed the ball the one time he ventured off his line into a crowd.
Being alert to sweep up behind the defence, and being sure with the ball at your feet, are two other requirements for blaugrana keepers. Again Ter Stegen showed well in these areas, especially when he raced from his line to calmly clear after Torres threatened to get in behind during the first half.
A similar fitness issue put Oblak more surprisingly behind Miguel Angel Moya in Simeone’s plans, even though at 16 million euros from Benfica he was by far the more expensive buy. The Slovenia international also had an early horror show in the Champions League, in his case at Olympiakos. There, he dropped for Europe too, and although he was excellent in the Copa last 16 first leg against Real Madrid, he was at fault for Sergio Ramos’ ultimately meaningless goal in the return last week.
Oblak was the busier of the two keepers here, in terms of traditional shot-stopping. He impressed early by going to full length to tip a Neymar 25-yard curler past the post. His handling was also good when Andres Iniesta’s daisy-cutter came through a crowd of players in the second half. His penalty save from Messi was also excellent, although he will perhaps have gone home wondering if he could not have pushed the ball farther away from goal.
All in all though, this was a decent night for two expensive young keepers who bit by bit are settling nicely at their new teams.