Apr 1, 2014, 7:34 PM EDT
The teams’ fourth meeting of the season ended the same as the first three, but we were better for it. Another perfectly balanced game between Barcelona and Atlético Mardid ended 1-1 today at the Nou Camp, and while that road may yet loom large, today’s game was another example of how perfectly matched these two teams have become.
After a scoreless first half that saw Gerard Piqué and Diego Costa leave with leg injuries, a long distance blast into the upper-right hand corner from substitute Diego game Atleti that precious away goal. Fifteen minutes later, brilliant work from Andrés Iniesta and Neymar produced a goal from the Brazilian, a tally the Blaugrana were unable to build on over the last 20 minutes.
Here are three things we learned from the first leg of the teams’ UEFA Champions League quarterfinal:
1. It’s about more than the stars … until it’s not - When an apparent leg injury forced Barcelona defender Gerard Piqué from the game in the 12th minute, an Atlético team that got a surprise start from forward Diego Costa looked to have a huge edge. But 18 minutes later, Atleti’s star striker was limping off, too, leaving Diego Simeone with his third (David Villa) and fourth (Diego) choice options leading his attack.
Though the game lost two of its most talented players, it was no worse for it. In fact, Tuesday’s contest was indistinguishable from the combative and enthralling games that characterized the teams’ first three battles. When Diego’s early second half blast found Pinto’s upper-left hand corner from distance, you could argue the game was actually (if unintentionally) better for losing two stars.
Then came the reminder of what stardom can do. Sure, Atlético right back Juanfran may have been caught a step out of position on Barcelona’s equalizer, but it took a sublime pass from Andrés Iniesta to exploit that crack. Neymar pounced and put an inch perfect shot around Thibault Courtois. It was going to take two of the world’s most talented players to break down Atlético. For one brief moment, they managed to do so.
Barcelona and Simeone’s Atlético have developed such distinct identities, it would take more than two injuries for them to change. But part of that identity is the brilliance of their players. And there are few more brilliant than Andrés Iniesta.
2. Clearly, Atlético’s going nowhere - You can understand why people don’t want to believe in Atlético, but at this point, there’s no reason to think this team can’t compete with Europe’s best. They’ve been doing so ever since Diego Simeone came on board.
Earlier this year, the doubt was understandable. Small sample, and such. Combine that with the team’s recent track record, the names in the squad, and the lack of day-to-day coverage La Liga gets around these parts (let’s face it: it’s still Barcelona, Real Madrid, and who? as attention spans go), and the idea that Atlético’s a fluke has been allowed to persist. Sure, they drew Barcelona three times this year, but Champions League would be different, right?
For those not watching Manchester United-Bayern Munich, we saw how serious Barcelona has been. And in the 360 minutes Gerardo Martino’s team has played against Atlético, the team’s led for none of them. It’s not just that Atlético has been competing in these games. They’ve been the closer side to wining them (well, two of them).
We’ve seen enough by now to know Atleti are for real. Even people who don’t follow the Spanish league can buy in. Now it’s a question of whether “for real” translates into “Champions League semifinalist.”
3. We need to stop and smell these roses - The longer this battle goes, the more amazing it becomes. Barcelona and Atlético, so perfectly matched, are slated to play six games this season. But whereas in previous seasons, when Barça and Real Madrid engaged in a seemingly endless series of Clasicos, it’s hard to get enough of Atlético and Barcelona.
It’s the perfect match of opposing styles. It’s soccer’s yin against football’s yang. It’s modernism, possession, and technique matched against timeless emotion and organization. It’s a team that looks beyond the typical trappings of athleticism and brawn facing a side that leverages their power to complement their passion. From the same league, both sporting Argentine coaches, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid couldn’t be more different, yet, after each set of 90 minutes they play, the scoresheet’s left them beautifully identical.
It’s a contrast makes results like today’s 1-1 special – more valuable than a win could have been for either side. Because at this point, a victory would defeat the purchase. The battle’s balance of physique, application, and philosophy has produced some of the best soccer of our lifetimes: what’s become a 360-minute marathon, where each side has brought evermore perfect free soccer out of the other.
We’ll see it again next week, we’ll see it again on the last day of the Spanish season, and if we’re lucky, we might get two more draws. but after these teams change this summer, the balance will be thrown off. Savior this time we have with Atlético and Barcelona.
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