Atlético Madrid quick to pounce on Barça weakness after Lionel Messi makes way | Sid Lowe


Atlético Madrid took the free-kick but their captain acted like they hadn’t and Koke Resurrección didn’t get up. He was still sitting where Arda Turan had left him, two team-mates over him, two opponents in front of him and the referee looking down at him, seven men standing in a five-metre square, when Filipe Luís poked the ball to Gabi Fernández. An eighth man walked by, barely a metre from him. Barcelona’s full-back turned towards the area and their deep midfielder ambled across, retaking positions they wouldn’t get to. Gabi might as well have whistled and looked the other way. It was like he wasn’t really playing – until he played them all.

Somehow it didn’t feel real and by the time Barcelona realised it was, the game had changed. Suddenly, bang! Like the fish that doesn’t know the Wobbegong shark is there until he feels its teeth close around him, they had been caught. Gabi stopped ambling and activated everyone, hitting a short, sharp ball forward. Gerard Piqué saw it and rushed to the scene but Fernando Torres got there before him. Torres nudged it first time through Piqué’s legs to Ángel Correa. Javier Mascherano came across, slipped, fell on his face, and Correa put the ball past Marc-André ter Stegen, in off the post.

The ball had been rolling less than 10 seconds; it was six since Gabi had lit the fuse. Koke had only just got to his feet. Torres had only been on the pitch a minute and so had Correa, their first touches an assist and a goal respectively. As for Leo Messi, he hadn’t been off the pitch much longer, temporarily taking a piece of everyone’s mind with him 30 seconds before Atlético’s two subs headed in the other direction. It had all happened so fast. First Barcelona lost Sergio Busquets, then they lost Messi. Now they had lost the victory. Not just any victory, either – one of the biggest of the season. All that happened in nine minutes; the goal happened in nine seconds.

For Barcelona, it had been going so well too. This was the biggest game of the season so far – the “other clásico,” Marca called it; the “vice-clásico”, AS said – and it came as an opportunity. Over at the Bernabéu, Sergio Ramos had Sergio Ramos-ed – giving away the first goal with a handball before falling to the floor holding his face, and then making up for it by scoring with a header – and Madrid’s record-equalling 16-game winning run had come to an end with a 1-1 draw against Villarreal. Win and Barcelona would be just one point behind Madrid at the top; Atlético, meanwhile, would trail them by four.

Barcelona were winning too. Ivan Rakitic had put them 1-0 up a little before half-time with a header from Andrés Iniesta’s delivery, the 11th time he has opened the scoring for them. He and Iniesta were everywhere and, while chances for a second were few, space limited, Barcelona were dominating, Piqué impeccable, Busquets controlling. As one commentator put it: “The problem for Atlético is that there’s only one ball, and it’s Barcelona’s.” But after 51 minutes Busquets went off, suffering illness. And four minutes after that, Messi pulled up, his hand reaching for his groin. Things were to about change. Messi tried to move but couldn’t. He sat, pulled down his sock, untied his boot and departed, kissed by Iniesta and sung off by supporters, eventually taking up his place on the bench. From pulling up to leaving, more than four minutes had passed. Ninety seconds after that, Atlético got a free-kick: Filipe Luís, Gabi, look away, whistle, bang: Torres, Correa, 1-1.

It had all happened so fast. It had all happened together, too. Diego Simeone insisted that the goal’s arrival so soon after Messi’s departure was “coincidental”, and rightly noted that Atlético had improved since the start of the second half – there had been two shots before the goal, both theirs – but Luis Enrique said: “I think that when Leo went off, some doubt was created.” It felt like there was indeed something in that idea, like Messi took something with him; as if he opened the door. Just a fraction, just a moment, and just enough for Atlético to burst through it.

If so, most teams wouldn’t have even spotted the gap; this felt like a very Atlético goal, the kind of instant that defines them and their manager. Intensity is not just physical; it is mental too. Always in the game, even when you think you’re not – and especially when, momentarily, the other team is not. Always alert to that moment. To use Graeme Souness’s phrase, always ready to “find the dope” – that chink, that weak link, that fraction of a second when someone switches off – and able to resist long enough to be able to do so. Able, too, to see the opportunity to go for the throat. “They made the first change, a double change, and got the goal,” Luis Enrique said, even if Correa did grin: “that wasn’t exactly the plan.”

There was still half an hour to go but the game had changed now, and there would be no more goals. Ninety minutes. Nine seconds. They ended up weighing the same.

Lionel Messi gets a peck on the head from Andrés Iniesta. Photograph: Albert Gea/Reuters

Down on the bench Messi occasionally shifted uncomfortably, like an old man trying to get up out of his rocking chair, as he watched his team chase a winner. There were some half chances too, mostly through Neymar, but this felt different now. In fact, you couldn’t help wondering if, with Messi and Busquets off, with Luis Suárez struggling, Atlético might have done more to take all three points: they’d gone for the equaliser and got it; perhaps they could have got the winner if they had gone for that too. “Did you lack ambition?” Gabi was asked. “This team never lacks ambition,” he replied.

“We changed in the second half: this is the team we are,” Simeone insisted. “The result was not what we expected and I think it was not what we deserved,” Luis Enrique said, adding: “There’s no need to flog ourselves over it.”

On one level at least, he was right: a draw against Atlético is no disaster – even if some Barcelona fans appear to greet every result as a disaster – and still less without Messi and Busquets. This is Atlético, not just anyone. There is a certain merit in seeing Antoine Griezmann playing all over the pitch, defending deep at times, in seeing Saúl have so little impact. “We did not let them create those transitions that they are dangerous in,” Luis Enrique said. But still, the sense of loss was palpable. Instead of a solitary point at the top, Madrid maintain a three-point lead over Barcelona, four over Atlético (and two over Sevilla).

That sense of loss was greater with Messi sitting there silently, ice on his groin. He will be out for three weeks according to the club, because of a torn muscle in the groin. He will miss games against Sporting and Celta in the league and Borussia Mönchengladbach in the Champions League. He may miss the next international break too.

He should. Suffering with pelvis problems, Messi probably should not have gone last time. He also probably shouldn’t have played when he came back. Against Alavés, he wasn’t supposed to. He started on the bench, only to be called into action – but he could not rescue his side. “We need to protect him but with this calendar that’s not going to be easy,” Luis Enrique admitted, yet he surely knows that he must anyway. Better to bring him back fit than bring him back fast. It’s not like they don’t have other players and when Messi was absent around this time last season, Neymar and Suárez led them into the clásico. The Brazilian in particular took a step forward. There’s no doubt that it will have an impact, though. After all, Luis Enrique insisted: “Losing Messi is losing football: we all lose.”

Real Madrid don’t. And Atlético didn’t, either. A free-kick saw to that, even if most failed to see that it had been taken at all.

Talking points

So Valencia swallowed the dog to catch the cat, to catch the bird, to catch the spider, to catch the fly, and they still don’t know why they swallowed the fly. Pako Ayestarán has been sacked. On Thursday night against Alavés, the fifth managerial spell since the beginning of last season starts up – Nuno, followed by Voro and Neville, followed by the other Neville, followed by Ayestarán, followed by Voro again. He’s on his fourth spell, all as caretaker, and he has no ambition to take over permanently, even though he has the best record in the club’s history, statistically. And so, the sixth spell will start as soon as they can find someone else to take over. The choice was Marcelino, although RFEF rules say he can’t take the job as he has already coached someone this season. Ah, argue Valencia, but he hasn’t: he was ditched by Villarreal before the season actually started. It’s a mess, alright.

So Pako’s gone. Paco next? Only Valencia are worse than Paco Jémez’s Granada and he seems to be almost trying to talk his way to the sack. “We have to score three goals to win a game and only very few teams can do that. Either we stop this or we have no chance of competing in this division,” he said. He was speaking after his team was beaten 2-1 by Athletic, for whom Raúl García scored another belter.

Real Madrid’s winning run ends on 16. It finished 1-1 with Bruno dinking in a lovely Panenka penalty, handed to them by Sergio Ramos. Villarreal were well-organised at the Bernabéu, with Bruno and Trigueros especially impressive in the middle, but Madrid were flat in the first half and, while they improved in the second (Zidane called it “spectacular”), this time they ran out of time. “We’re not always going to win at the end,” Zidane said. They might have here, but truth be told they’ve not played that well over the last three games.

Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos celebrates his equaliser.

Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos celebrates his equaliser. Photograph: Sergio Perez/Reuters

Gus Poyet came into the press conference carrying his laptop. “Have you seen it or do you want me to show it to you?” he asked. Oh, they had seen it. “It” was the goal that Betis had wrongly disallowed – a lovely goal too – as they went down 1-0 in the Seville derby. “We have been denied a victory,” Poyet said. “And it keeps happening. You can’t invent things that haven’t happened.” Mostly, the derby wasn’t great in terms of football, but it was enjoyable as ever in a cartoonish sort of way, and it was as loud as ever. Oh, and Sami Nasri was good. He also appears to have learnt Spanish very, very quickly and was keen to practice it on his Betis opponents.

Twenty-two minutes in and Las Palmas were 2-0 and a man down at Real Sociedad – and Carlos Vela had scored too. Yes, that Carlos Vela. Which was pretty unexpected. It finished 4-1. The man sent off was Kevin-Prince Boateng, guilty of making a save without being the goalkeeper. Good news: Sergio Canales is back in action at last.

Boom! This week’s golazo came from Málaga’s Youssef En-Nesyri, a 19-year-old who came from the youth team, via Maghreb Fez, from whom he joined as part of a four-player package costing €125,000. He scored a belting winner against Eibar. “I felt like crying when it went in,” he said.

Results: Málaga 2-1 Eibar, Sevilla 1–0 Betis, Real Madrid 1–1 Villarreal, Celta 2–1 Sporting, Real Sociedad 4–1 Las Palmas, Granada 1–2 Athletic, Barcelona 1–1 Atlético. Thursday: Osasuna-Espanyol, Deportivo-Leganés, Valencia-Alavés.

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