After a tense first leg that ended 1-1, with Diego Ribas grabbing a crucial away goal for Atleti, the 2 sides met for the 5th time this season to decide which one of them would progress to the semis of the Champions League. Much like the earlier clashed between these 2 rivals, this was also a game that resulted in a lot of damaged shin pads and some very tired players. Atletico finally managed to score a win over the Catalans to please the 55000 home supporters that packed the Vicente Calderon. Diego Simeone’s wonder team now move to the final 4, to extend their already draining season by a little.
Atletico Madrid 1-0 Barcelona
Atletico: Courtois; Juanfran; Miranda; Godin; Filipe Luis; Raul Garcia; Gabi; Tiago; Koke; Adrian (Diego Ribas, 62); David Villa (Cristian Rodriguez, 79).
Barcelona: Valdes; Dani Alves; Bartra; Mascherano; Jordi Alba; Busquets; Xavi; Iniesta (Pedro, 72); Cesc (Alexis, 61); Neymar; Messi.
Atletico’s furious start
Playing in front of a raucous atmosphere in their home ground and in front of their fans, Atletico came into the game with the away goal advantage. This prompted some into believing that the Colchoneros would sit back and play with a primarily defensive outlook, but any such thoughts were banished after the rip roaring start that Atletico Madrid made. Simeone’s side were looking to kill the game off in its early stages, with their ferocious pressing yielding opportunities.
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In the first 15 minutes alone, the Rojiblancos made 3 interceptions, and 6 tackles successfully. They made it really hard for Barcelona to play out from the back due to the intensity and aggression with which they pressed. Barcelona, usually revered for their precise and flawless passing were left floundering, with a number of balls from the back falling to the willing feet of the Atleti players. Not only did they score an early goal, they also created a number of chances for themselves to extend the lead, and should realistically have put the game beyond the Catalans in the first few minutes. David Villa in particular was guilty of squandering some great opportunities.
As you can see in the image above, Atletico have a lot of people camped in the Barcelona third, trying to win the ball back. Generally, in such a situation, the team in Barcelona’s position can always rely on their keeper to get the ball clear and alleviate the pressure, but Victor Valdes was missed on this occasion, with his replacement Pinto having a few nervous moments on the ball. He almost made a grave error when he tried to dribble the ball in his own 6 yard box, but fortunately for Barcelona, he got it clear. The point of this is that it just increased the pressure that Barcelona felt at the back thanks to Atletico’s aggression.
Barcelona interchanging in front
Heading into the game, many were of the opinion that Cesc would begin in the central striking role and Messi would start on the right. Such a line up would mean that Andres Iniesta would be played deeper in the midfield, where Cesc operated last week. However, in practice, the Barcelona teams switched positions quite a lot. This interchanging was necessary for them to try and disrupt the Atletico marking and defense. Cesc and Messi especially were quite mobile, and happy to move into different positions. Messi played a bit deeper than he usually does, though that might have been because of how crowded it was near the Atletico penalty area, and Cesc was seen in midfield, as a forward, and in the wide areas.
As you can see from the image above, Cesc was all over the pitch, and occupying different positions. This interchanging of positions was a good idea, but unfortunately for Barcelona, it didn’t work, as Atletico held their nerve, kept their shape and took the win.
Aerial passes behind the defence
The first leg last week saw casualties for both the sides. Atletico lost their best player and talismanic striker, Diego Costa to injury, and Barcelona suffered because their star defender, Gerard Pique injured himself too. This was a huge loss for Barcelona, and in retrospect, the injury troubles hurt Barcelona more than they hurt Atletico. The absence of Pique left a huge hole in the defence. Atletico were able to exploit this problem by playing aerial balls in behind the Barcelona defence. The Catalans really struggled in the air against their very able opponents, winning only 26% of the aerial duels in the match.
This wasn’t just a problem going forward, at the back, it really hurt their chances. The Atletico goal came from such a move, with a header that was won just in front of the defence ending up behind the Barcelona defenders for Adrian to run onto and hit the post. This happened more than once, with the high line and poor aerial ability of the Barcelona players giving Atletico an avenue.
In the image above, we can see Adrian getting behind the Barcelona defence. This is an image from the build up to the Koke goal. Raul Garcia initially won the header, sending the ball in the direction shown to put Adrian behind.
Generally, Adrian plays out wide, and Garcia in the centre, but the roles were reversed on the night for a reason. Raul Garcia was pushed out to the right hand side to compete with Jordi Alba in the air. This was a sure mismatch in the air, as Garcia dominated that zone of the pitch, serving as a good outpost and target for the home side. Most crosses were aimed at the far posts to activate this duel.
The image above is from a phase of play just prior to the goal. The cross from David Villa is floated towards the far post, and both Adrian and Raul Garcia are attacking the ball. Both of these tall players easily beat Alba in the air, and it is eventually Adrian who plays it to an onrushing Koke.
Atletico also effected most of their counter attacks down Adrian’s file to take advantage of his pace. There was more than one occasion that saw Adrian pick up the ball and run at the Barcelona defence.
Barcelona trying to cage Atletico in
Atletico held their own at the back, and did so very well. Barcelona hardly caused any problems at all in the first half, and at half time, Martino needed to come up with a solution to create space for his side. His response was to try and force Atletico into their own penalty area, and keep them caged inside there. This would create space around that area for his players to work their magic. It also fitted in well with what one might expect Atletico’s mentality to be. Martino might be forgiven for expecting Atletico to go into their shells to protect their lead. In order to push Atletico into their box, Martino instructed his wide players and deep players to make runs into the box. This would also solve the problem of the lack of verticality in Barcelona’s play, and provide more options for piercing passes. This is why the second half saw players like Xavi hernandez and Jordi Alba make runs into Atletico area, and often end up as the furthest player forward.
Where does that leave them?
This result meant that 2014 was the first time since 2007 that Barcelona failed to make the semi finals of the UEFA Champions League. Atletico Madrid on the other hand, will see semi final action for the first time since 1974. The result is a big one, and one that Simeone’s side richly deserve. They came into the tie with a game plan, and executed it perfectly. The play from the Atletico Madrid side is terrific, with the team playing very intense football. It seems as if Simeone has got them playing at 110% for every minute of every game, and this quality will make them tough to beat.
As for the Catalans, it is a time of reflection. Messi, their star, was largely ineffective, and their tiki taka style seems to be on the wane. They remain a top quality team, but they desperately need to add variety to their ranks. Martino was already on shaky ground with regard to his future at the club, and this result will do him no favours. He will only hope that it isn’t psychologically damaging to his team, as the 2 sides will meet again on the last day of the league season in a match that is likely to be a title decider.
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