Now this—with intensity overflowing from the first whistle until the last, and frantic, blitzkrieg attacking being thwarted by heroic defending—was everything El Clásico was not.
Atlético Madrid came into today’s Champions League quarterfinal at the Camp Nou with a defense in crisis. Diego Godín and José Giménez have anchored arguably the best central defensive partnership in Europe over the past year, but both were laid up with injuries weeks ago. Their most able replacement, Stefan Savić, has also been nursing a muscle injury, and didn’t play today. Godín made a late recovery, but Atléti still trotted out a 20-year-old and a guy who hasn’t played in three weeks against the best trio of attacking players in the world.
On the other end was a bloodthirsty Barcelona team, wounded for the first time in ages after the weekend defeat to Real Madrid and hellbent on setting the record straight. They were tired, certainly, as tired as they looked for the final 30 minutes of the Clásico, but with no cushy point lead to excuse a less-than-invested performance, Atlético would face the full brunt of Barça’s most motivated efforts, even if those efforts weren’t in peak form.
And, somehow, it almost worked. Twenty-five minutes into the game, Koke slipped a ball to Fernando Torres, who split Dani Alves and Javier Mascherano, then threaded it through Marc-André ter Stegen’s legs.
All Atlético had to do for the last 65 minutes was defend; which, yes, is like saying all Ernest Shackleton had to do was take a boat ride, but Atléti have proven a nigh-impossible team to break down and score on. They’ve only allowed 15 goals this year in La Liga, and before this afternoon, had only let in three goals in all eight of their Champions League games.
Atlético don’t have Barcelona’s number, because nobody has their number, but it wasn’t unrealistic to think that they could fluster and kick Messi and co. around for an hour. Hell, 1-1 on the road would have been a more-than-acceptable result. Basically all they had to do was avoid, say, a first half red card. What’s that you say?
Damnit. Torres, in winning the tight contest of former Liverpool strikers trying their best to lose their heads, cost Atlético their vital ability to press Barcelona back away from the final third, where, given time, they can pick any opponent to death. Atlético fought valiantly, spending most of the day with literally all ten men within whispering distance of Jan Oblak in goal, but Barça’s onslaught eventually, inevitably, broke them. After bumbling his way into the opener, Luis Suárez killed Atlético with a bullet header.
Now, 2-1 is in no way a terrible result for Atlético. If Savić is healthy next week, and Diego Simeone can find the right forward to replace Torres (and it better be Ángel Correa), getting a 1-0 win isn’t impossible. It’s not likely, of course, but nobody plays Barcelona tougher than Atlético. With defending like this from today, willing their bodies and even the woodwork into keeping out an absolutely rampant Barcelona side, you can never assume anyone will score against them:
If Barcelona advance and Atlético can’t hang, I don’t think anyone will stop them for the rest of the Champions League. Between the celestial chemistry of their front three and the range of their midfield, Barcelona look like they’ll be too much to handle for any team that doesn’t have a back line as good as Atlético’s. Bayern are going through a health crisis of their own, PSG start David Luiz, and, c’mon, Real Madrid suck this year.
Barcelona haven’t been held scoreless since January 2, so only a fool would truly favor Atlético heading into next Wednesday’s meeting. But no other team gives them the kind of problems Atléti does, and this might be the rest of the European soccer world’s best chance to stop a Champions League repeat.