Luis Enrique’s side lost 2-0 at the Vicente Calderon and are out of the Champions League as their poor recent run continues – and their best player was absent again on Wednesday.
There will be no treble this time for Barcelona. The Catalan club were dumped out of the Champions League by an intense and impressive Atletico side on Wednesday as Lionel Messi went missing in Madrid. Suddenly, nothing is going right for Luis Enrique’s men.
Barca won the first leg 2-1, but only took control of that match after Fernando Torres was dismissed for two bookable offences. Up until the striker’s departure, Atleti had been the superior side and many thought the Robjiblancos would have gone on to win with 11 men on the pitch.
Impossible to know that now, but in this one Atletico looked fitter and hungrier against a Barca team that has hit a road block since losing the Clasico to fierce rivals Real Madrid at Camp Nou earlier this month.
The Catalans had taken only one point from their three league games prior to this match and struggled against Atleti too until Torres’ dismissal. And Messi had failed to score in all four fixtures, looking especially fatigued since returning from the international break.
Nevertheless, this was an opportunity for Barcelona to prove they remained the best team around with a statement of intent when it mattered most. Yet they were unable to produce it – and nor was Messi.
Antoine Griezmann headed the home side into a first-half lead following a poor clearance by the disappointing Jordi Alba, a player so frustrating in recent weeks that Barca may be on the look out for a new left-back in the summer.
The tie was 2-2 now, but Atleti’s away goal meant they would advance if the scores stayed the same. Barca, now, seemed sure to react – but they couldn’t. Instead, Griezmann netted from the penalty spot late in the game to give Diego Simeone’s side the lead on aggregate.
Right at the end, Barca appealed for a penalty themselves as Gabi handled in the box. Replays showed the action to be just inside the area, yet the referee gave a free-kick to the Catalans which Messi fired over the bar. Iniesta, who had hit the original shot, arguably should not have been on the pitch anyway after handling in the area at the other end in Atleti’s penalty award.
Either way, Barcelona cannot complain. They were simply not good enough on the night and should have put this tie to bed in the last 20 minutes at Camp Nou when they were up against 10 men.
“It is my fault 100 per cent,” Luis Enrique said after the game. “It is obvious we are not in our best moment, but we have to pick ourselves up. There are still some attractive competitions left for us to play.”
Indeed. Gerard Pique had warned his team-mates after the Clasico that they could not afford a dip in form at this stage of the season, but that is exactly what has happened. Barca still lead La Liga by three points from Atletico and are four clear of Real Madrid, while they face Sevilla in the final of the Copa del Rey next month. But nothing has been won yet.
Asked about the fading form of his front three, Luis Enrique said: “It’s unfair to talk about individuals after a defeat, just like it is after a victory. I won’t do that. We are not in our best moment, but I have no complaints at all with the players’ attitude.”
However, Messi’s performance was worrying for Barca fans. The Argentine attacker chased down Yannick Carrasco as he tracked back into his own half in the opening period, but was absent in the areas he was needed most by Barca throughout the game and has not scored for 452 minutes.
That represents his worst run since 2010 and Barca will want their prized player back on form for the remaining tests in La Liga and then the cup final against Sevilla. Failure to sign Nolito in the January window now seems extremely costly and as Luis Enrique said, Barca now need to pick themselves up.
For Simeone and Atleti, meanwhile, this was another triumph. The Rojiblancos had lost all seven games against Luis Enrique’s side prior to this one, but they were the last team to knock the Catalans out of Europe, in 2013-14. And now they have a chance to go one better than they did that season, when they lost the final to Real in Lisbon.
“It was an amazing performance against one of the best teams in the world,” Griezmann said. “Now we are in the last four and as our coach says, we will take it one game at a time.” As they always do.
So as Barcelona and Messi hit a crisis, Atletico are on the up at the right time – and the end of the season now presents very different tests for the two teams.
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