Barcelona returned to the top of La Liga with a battling 1-0 victory over Atletico Madrid in an enthralling and incident-packed contest at a rain-soaked Wanda Metropolitano on Sunday night.
Lionel Messi fired home a brilliant late winner for Barca, but the visitors should have been reduced to 10 men by that stage and were also indebted to two superb saves from goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the first half.
But our talking points from the action can only begin with Messi.
Messi does it again
This heavyweight clash between last season’s champions and runners-up was more watchable than most people expected, with plenty of attacking football and chances at both ends.
Considering the overall balance of play, a draw probably would have been the right result, and neither team could have complained if they had been forced to settle for a point.
The reason that didn’t happen can be summed up with two little words: Lionel. Messi.
The Barca captain was comfortably the most dangerous attacking player all night, creating his team’s only real first half chance by robbing Hector Herrera and driving forward to pick out a pass for Ivan Rakitic, whose tame shot didn’t trouble Jan Oblak.
He continued after the break, forcing Oblak into an awkward low save with a skidding low shot and then sparking a dangerous counter-attack with a brilliant dribble past two desperate challenges to find Luis Suarez, who created a chance which was wasted by former Atletico striker Antoine Griezmann, who was mercilessly jeered by home fans all night.
Then, just when the game seemed to be heading for a draw, Messi received a pass from Sergi Roberto and took advantage of rare space in midfield to drive towards the edge of the box, where he played a wall pass with Suarez and clinically fired an unstoppable shot into the bottom left corner, making it look easy in a way only one player can. Messi, once again, the difference maker.
Atletico enraged as Pique escapes red
Although there was ultimately nothing they could do to stop Messi, Atletico will feel enormously aggrieved that referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz took centre stage – as he generally tends to do – with two hugely contentious decisions in the latter stages before the winning goal.
Firstly the flamboyant whistleblower failed to send off Gerard Pique when the defender launched into a reckless challenge on Alvaro Morata when the central defender was already on a yellow card.
Mateu Lahoz gave a free-kick but declined to produce a card, perhaps because Pique didn’t make any contact with Morata – but that only happened because the home team forward was forced into taking evasive action to avoid the clumsy lunge.
A few minutes later, Mateu Lahoz decided to make up for his previous mistake with an even more lenient decision, refusing to show Atletico substitute Vitolo a very deserved second yellow for a heavy foul on Pique which forced the Barca veteran to be substituted.
But if Pique had been sent off as he should have been a few minutes earlier, he wouldn’t have even been there for Vitolo to make his challenge. Atletico will feel the entire course of the match was altered by that initial decision as Barca were wrongly left with a full complement of players for the latter stages which proved so decisive.
Ter Stegen to the rescue
This was arguably a meeting of the world’s two best goalkeepers, with Atletico’s Oblak measuring himself up against Barca’s Ter Stegen. And the visiting keeper came out on top after making two brilliant saves to keep his side on level terms in the first half.
Firstly, ter Stegen showed great reflexes – and enjoyed a bit of fortune – to keep out a firm low strike from Mario Hermoso’s with his foot, before he made an even better save to dive low to his right and repel Morata’s strong downward header with a firm right wrist.
Oblak only had one easy first half save to make from Ivan Rakitic’s powderpuff shot, and made a similarly comfortable stop from Griezmann’s long-range strike early in the second. Oblak proceeded to make a handful of decent but fairly routine stops, before being left with no chance when Messi found the bottom corner for the late winner.
Ter Stegen didn’t have to produce any second-half heroics, but he was indebted to a key clearance from Sergi Roberto after a low cross-shot fizzed across goal and would have given Vitolo a simple tap-in without the intervention of Barca’s perfectly placed right-back.
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