Barcelona took control of the La Liga title race as goals from Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez inspired a come from behind 2-1 win against nine-man Atletico Madrid on Saturday.
Koke handed the visitors a deserved early lead, but Barca turned the game thanks to two goals in eight minutes before the break through Messi and Suarez.
Atletico’s hopes of salvaging a point were then ruined as Filipe Luis and Diego Godin were sent-off for rash challenges either side of half-time.
? Bravo: "it was a tough game beacuse they were very strong, but we came out on top in the duel and that is thanks to our work in the week"— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) January 30, 2016
Victory takes Barca three points clear of Atletico at the top of the table – having also played a game less – and seven points clear of third-placed Real Madrid, who host Espanyol on Sunday.
The clash between La Liga’s top two pitted Europe’s most feared attack against its strongest defence, but it was Atletico who started on the front foot.
Saul Niguez’s dipping effort was brilliantly turned over by Claudio Bravo after just two minutes.
However, another Niguez burst provided the opening goal eight minutes later when his cross from the right just evaded Antoine Griezmann and was slotted home at the far post by Koke.
Atletico could even have had a more commanding lead as Augusto Fernandez flashed a shot inches wide with Barca struggling to get a foothold in the game.
The European champions had been outplayed by Malaga and Athletic Bilbao in the first-half of their previous two games before reacting after the break, but they clicked into gear in the final 15 minutes of the first-half to turn the game on its head.
Suarez fired a warning shot that Jan Oblak got down well to save at his near post.
However, the Slovenian’s 483-minute run without conceding was ended when Jordi Alba showed great composure to pull a low cross into Messi’s path to smash home.
Atletico were then caught uncharacteristically flat-footed as Dani Alves’s long ball over the top picked out Suarez, who showed great strength to hold off compatriot Jose Maria Gimenez, before slotting between Oblak’s legs.
The game looked over as a contest a minute before the break when Luis was sent-off for high, studs-up, challenge on Messi inside the Barcelona half.
Yet, despite their numerical disadvantage, Atletico still started the second period the better.
Yannick Carrasco’s lung-bursting run was snuffed out at the last hurdle by Gerard Pique.
The Belgian then produced a fine cross for Griezmann, but his acrobatic effort from point-blank range was brilliantly saved by Bravo.
Atletico’s resistance was undone by their own stupidity again 25 minutes from time, though, as Godin lunged in on Suarez and was rightly shown a second yellow card.
Barca then rubbed salt into the visitors’ wounds by introducing former Atletico midfielder Arda Turan for Ivan Rakitic and the Turkish international was inches away from his first goal since swapping the Spanish capital for the Camp Nou when his shot flew just wide of the far post.
And a horrible day for Diego Simeone’s men was rounded off when Fernandez had to be stretchered from the field with what looked like a serious knee injury 15 minutes from time.
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Just over a year ago, Barcelona were floundering. The signing of Luis Suarez had done nothing to improve the fortunes of a team which failed to land any silverware at the end of the previous season, and manager Luis Enrique was facing increasing pressure after overseeing an unconvincing series of performances.
Everything turned, however, in the course of one game in early January, when Barca finally found a sense of direction and purpose.
Barca won 3-1, Messi, Suarez and Neymar all got onto the scoresheet for the very first time, and the rest is history. The vanquished opponents were none other than Atletico Madrid. And on Saturday, the latest rematch with Diego Simeone’s side will provide the biggest clue yet as to whether the ‘MSN’ forward line will dominate world football in 2016 as they did in 2015.
Make no mistake, Barcelona possess a wonderful squad. But Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and the rest are the sub-plot: the thing that sets them apart is Messi, Suarez and Neymar – both individually and for their brilliant combination play, making them close to unstoppable.
MSN’s ability to rescue their team was seen as recently as Wednesday, when Barca were struggling in their Copa del Rey clash with Athletic Bilbao until Messi crossed for Suarez to score and the tie turned decisively in their favour. Can they be stopped? If any team can, it is surely Atletico, who have conceded just three goals in their opening 11 away league games this season – something never achieved before.
Atletico’s defensive excellence begins with the seriously under rated Diego Godin, the Uruguayan central defender who is a model of consistency and reliability. Godin sets the tone for Atletico’s defending by doing just that: defending.
Unlike Barca’s back four, who are responsible for starting attacks just as much as ending those of the opposition, Godin does not care too much where the ball goes once he clears it. He just gets it out of the danger zone, taking no chances, and backs himself to clear it again when it comes back. It is almost an ‘anti-Barca’ approach but Atletico do it brilliantly, relying on their organisation, determination and mental resilience to repel anything thrown at them.
And their organisation, masterminded by Simeone’s attention to detail, is another key element. However the opposition attacks them – whether they play the ball along the ground or in the air, long or short – Atletico’s positioning is so solid, their collective movement so well-rehearsed, it can be impossible to find space.
They surround, smother, frustrate and, when the ball presents itself, get rid of it. Atletico’s defence is not infallible, as demonstrated by Barca’s recent successes against them, but they present the biggest possible challenge to attackers.
If Godin and company claim another clean sheet today, it could swing the title race decisively in Atletico’s direction. That’s a very big ‘if’, but don’t rule it out.
Luis Enrique has confirmed that Neymar has overcome any injury concerns and will start for Barcelona in Saturday’s crunch clash with Atletico Madrid – and joked he would be “killed” if he left the Brazilian ace on the bench.
Neymar, who has scored 21 goals in 26 club appearances this season, finished his team’s Copa del Rey victory over Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday night badly hobbling, prompting speculation that he may miss today’s top of the table meeting at the Nou Camp.
But upbeat Enrique, who also revealed that full-back Jordi Alba has recovered from injury, smiled: “Neymar had a bang on the foot, but he’s fine and he will play. It won’t be a risk to play him. It would be a risk not to play him – they’d kill me.”
Enrique also restated his confidence that Neymar, whose first goal of the season came against Atletico with a brilliant free-kick in September’s 2-1 victory at the Vicente Calderon, will soon put pen to paper on a new contract.
The Brazilian has been linked with far-fetched moves to Manchester United and Real Madrid and this week hinted he would one day like to play under Pep Guardiola, but Enrique added: “When he signs, you can remind me whether I was right when I said that he would sign.”
Saturday’s game is probably the most important in the remainder of the La Liga season as the current joint leaders meet. Barca have a game in hand due to their involvement in December’s Club World Cup, and hold another major advantage over Atletico after their September meeting – crucial in a league where teams level on points are split by their head to head results rather than goal difference.
The prospect of moving three points clear with a game in hand is clearly an extremely enticing one for Barca, but Enrique attempted to play down the significance of the fixture as he claimed: “The game is important but not decisive. Whatever happens, it will still be tight at the top and there are still many games remaining.”
Although the finest day in Atletico’s recent history took place at the Nou Camp when they clinched the league title on the final day of the 2013-14 campaign, Barca have held the upper hand since then with Enrique having won all five of his meetings with Diego Simeone.
Enrique said: “They were only good results for us because we played well. Atletico are a tough team and we’ll need to forget about whatever results we’ve had against them in the past. We’ll have to play a complete game from the first minute to the 95th.”
Simeone is under no illusions about his team’s chief priority as they attempt to contain a strike force of Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez which has already combined for 45 league goals.
“They are three players of an exceptionally high level,” said the Atletico chief. “They also show a remarkable amount of generosity towards each other, which is rare to see.”
At the other end of the field, Simeone’s strike force has been less than convincing with the exception of Antoine Griezmann’s 12 league goals. No other Atletico player has managed more than three, Jackson Martinez a particular disappointment since signing from Porto.
Simeone added: “We have plenty of options in attack. Being a forward is very demanding, especially in big games. Hopefully we’ll see them perform in this one.”
Midfielder Gabi also hopes Los Rojiblancos can recover from their cup exit to Celta Vigo on Wednesday. The captain said: “The team are hurting. But the important thing is to get back up and we have a big match against a great rival.”
Meanwhile, Barcelona will meet Valencia in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey, with Sevilla taking on Celta Vigo in the other last-four tie. The first legs will be played on February 3 and 4 at the Nou Camp and Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, with the return meetings a week later.