Instead, they were undone by a trademark moment from Lionel Messi that consigned the visitors to a 1-0 defeat that leaves them trailing Barcelona by eight points. Their high-flying attack was kept at bay during their search for an equaliser.
Here’s how Atletico’s players fared in their loss.
Sime Vrsaljko 6 – Held up well against Barcelona’s attack, although Andres Iniesta’s forced substitution made his life easier.
Jose Gimenez 7 – Kept Luis Suarez in check, with his pace serving to frustrate his fellow Uruguayan.
Diego Godin 7 – Won his duel with compatriot Suarez more often than not, and stood up well against Messi, too. This was a performance that didn’t deserve to be on the losing side.
Felipe Luis 7 – A solid performance at the back, and plenty of running to join Atletico’s attack as they searched for an equaliser.
Saul 6 – The young midfielder will feel he could have done more, especially early in the second half as Atleti charged forward. This was a game that served more as a learning experience than a stage for his talents.
Thomas Partey 5 – His foul that led to Messi’s game-winning free-kick was a blemish on what was otherwise an all-action display in midfield. But for all his energy, he failed to have a telling impact.
Gabi 5 – Was visibly upset when he was taken off, chucking the captain’s armband to the ground, but he knew he didn’t have the legs to keep up with Barcelona.
Koke 5 – Had little impact in midfield, and seemed to almost give up towards the end, when his side still had a chance to level the scores.
Antoine Griezmann 4 – Back down to earth after a spell of seven goals in two games. Rarely got a sniff of goal, and was wasteful on the ball.
Diego Costa 5 – He couldn’t bully or wind up the Barcelona defence, and was caught offside too often – including the one time Atletico had the ball in the net.
Angel Correa 6 – Looked threatening after coming on, adding another dimension to the visitors’ attack. Struggled to link up with Griezmann and Costa, however, although that was more their fault than his.
Kevin Gameiro 6 – Had the ball in the back of the net, and will feel hard done by the fact that Costa had strayed offside in setting him up. Nearly the crowning moment of his Atletico career.
Lucas 5 – The Frenchman added pace and strength to Atletico’s defence as Simeone tried to guard against the Barcelona counter, but also looked shaky at times and nearly gifted Barca a goal.
The Argentine struck with a trademark free-kick as Barca edged past their nearest rivals to take a huge stride towards regaining the La Liga title.
Atletico could not secure a victory which would have reduced the deficit to two.
So what effect did Ernesto Valverde and Diego Simeone’s tactics have on their respective team’s performance and ultimately, the result?
Goals – 1
Shots – 16
Possession – 59%
Tackles – 15
Dribbles – 20
Goals – 0
Shots – 6
Possession – 41%
Tackles – 39
Dribbles – 7
The Barcelona coach set his side up in his customary 4-4-where on earth is Messi?-1 formation. The Argentine was given free rein to roam, dropping into pockets of space all across the final third.
Openings were hard to come by in the early stages but with Philippe Coutinho taking more control of proceedings as the game went on and linking up with Messi well, Barcelona began to pose a greater threat. The hosts came under a bit of pressure in the second half but were always dangerous on the break.
The Atletico boss mirrored his opposite number’s system by fielding a 4-4-2 as well, except Antoine Griezmann wasn’t involved enough to have anywhere near the same impact that Messi was able to at the other end of the pitch.
Along with Diego Costa, the Frenchman was isolated up front for much of the game while Barcelona bossed the midfield. Atletico threw bodies forward out of necessity in the last 20 minutes and started to get on the end of things but couldn’t draw level.
Philippe Coutinho hasn’t always gotten the nod since he became available playing him in this clash paid off. He operated between the lines excellently, taking charge and conducting play in the final third. Looks settled already.
With an hour played, it didn’t look as if Atletico had any way back into the game but his attacking substitutions finally gave them a threat. It nearly paid off as well but for Gameiro’s goal being ruled out for offside for a call against Costa.
His substitutions were questionable, replacing the injured Andres Iniesta with Andre Gomes – who has been woefully out of form – in Barca’s biggest game of their league campaign. Coutinho was dangerous on the break but was hooked for Paulinho.
Man-marking Messi may not have been the answer, but Atletico didn’t keep tabs on the Argentine at all who had it all his own way. Maybe playing Griezmann from wide and adding another midfielder would’ve helped his side cope with the Barca star.
The Barca boss was spot on with the way he set his team up but raised a few eyebrows with his substitutions. However, he got the result and that’s all that matters. Eight points clear, title within reach.
Surprisingly sat off Barcelona in the first half and surrendered possession. His team didn’t have its trademark bite. Made sure his side went for it at the end but his lack of attention to Messi was worrying.
All statistics are compiled using whoscored.com
Lionel Messi conjured up his 600th career goal and even he has scored only a few more important as it could prove the strike that handed Barcelona the La Liga title.
Messi’s free-kick – his third in as many games – handed Barca a 1-0 victory as Atletico Madrid struggled to gain a foothold in the game.
Antoine Griezmann had scored seven goals in his last two games but he and Diego Simeone had no answer to a comprehensive Barca performance.
Hand over the title now?
For a couple of weeks it looked like we were poised for a serious title race, but that’s no longer the case and La Liga might as well give the title to Barcelona right now (instead of three months after the season finishes, as they usually do).
This well-deserved victory leaves the leaders eight points ahead of Atletico, and the margin is effectively nine points taking into account Barca’s head to head advantage – the first tie-breaker in La Liga, rather than goal difference – over their nearest rivals.
This result and the 1-1 draw between the teams in Madrid earlier in the season helps to give Barca an extremely commanding position, and the fact that Atletico still have to travel to Real Madrid as well as juggling their quest to win the Europa League – surely their priority for the season now? – makes it highly unlikely they’ll claim maximum points from the remainder of the campaign.
Of course, nothing is impossible and there’s still a chance that Barca will suffer a late-season collapse to reignite the title race. But right now, that scenario looks extremely unlikely.
Messi’s set-piece hat-trick
Three games and three magnificent set-piece goals…just another week in the life of Lionel Messi.
The first goal of Messi’s free-kick trio came last weekend against Girona, when he intelligently used the defensive wall’s collective jump to arrow a low shot into the bottom left corner.
Then, at Las Palmas in midweek, he drove an unstoppable rising strike with the laces of his boots into the top left corner.
And finally, to win this title showdown with Atletico, Messi exploded another missile into the top right corner, arcing beyond the despairing dive of Jan Oblak.
Bottom left, top left, top right…which surely means he will complete the set by rifling one into the bottom right corner in his next game at Malaga next weekend?
Interestingly, Messi made a point of following his passionate celebration for this goal by signalling to Marc-Andre ter Stegen with an appreciative thumbs up, suggesting the Barca keeper had played a part in plotting the positioning of his strike.
Tactical battle won by Valverde
This was an interesting game tactically, with both teams undertaking several positional and tactical changes over the course of the action.
The first significant move was Ernesto Valverde’s decision to place Philippe Coutinho on the right of a forward three, but the former Liverpool man soon moved to the left of midfield after Andres Iniesta was injured.
That brought Andre Gomes into the game on the right of the attack, but he also had a new position before the end, moving to the left of midfield as Valverde switched to a 4-4-2 with Paulinho on the right.
Atletico played in a 4-4-2 throughout but with many different flavours, as Koke and Saul finished the game in the centre after starting in wide positions, while Antoine Griezmann ended up in an attacking left wing role having started alongside Diego Costa in the middle.
Throughout the various tweaks, however, Barca were on top and in control, fully deserving the victory and showing again that Valverde knows just how to manage the flow of a game with the options at his disposal.