The best player in the world was at the Camp Nou, only it was Atletico Madrid's Jan Oblak

Andy West 16:34 07/04/2019
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Atletico Madrid stopper Jan Oblak

The best in the world was up to his old tricks again at the Camp Nou on Saturday night.

He delivered several spectacular contributions, starting in the opening period but mainly in the second half as Barcelona stepped up their efforts to find a breakthrough in La Liga’s table-topping clash against Atletico Madrid.

In the end, though, his efforts were not enough and he was unfortunate to end up on the losing side.

The losing side? Yes…because, for once, we are not talking about Lionel Messi. We are talking about Jan Oblak.

The Atletico keeper was in stupendous form on Saturday, doing his best to erect a one-man barrier with a series of outstanding saves. Barca needed to conjure something special to beat him, and they eventually produced it as Luis Suarez with a long-range banana-bending fizzer and Leo Messi with a preposterous close-range slider gained the points for the home team.

Despite coming away defeated, Oblak had already done more than enough to enhance his reputation as one of the top goalkeepers in the world, making three world-class saves to deny Philippe Coutinho, Suarez and Messi.

In the end he totalled eight saves, meaning that his work for the night (eight saves, two goals conceded) perfectly reflected his overall stats for the season: Oblak has saved 81 percent of the shots he has faced, a higher percentage than any other goalkeeper in Europe’s top five leagues.

A dejected Jan Oblak after defeat to Barcelona

A dejected Jan Oblak after defeat to Barcelona

None of this is surprising, because Oblak has been a model of consistent brilliance for a few years now, managing to do something which appeared to be impossible when he was signed from Benfica in the summer of 2014: provide an upgrade on the man he was replacing, Thibaut Courtois.

It took him a while to settle in La Liga, and at first he had to be content with a place on the bench as an understudy to veteran Miguel Angel Moya. But by the end of his first season with Atletico, Oblak had established himself as the first-choice keeper and has never looked back since.

For each of the last four seasons, Atletico have boasted the best defensive record in Spain: they conceded a remarkable total of just 18 goals in 38 games in 2015/16, then 27, then 22, and now they are leading the way again with 21 goals allowed in 31 games so far.

Of course, having Simeone’s disciplined system and the outstanding Diego Godin in front of him has helped, but Oblak’s incredible shot-stopping skills and general dominance of his penalty area have also been fundamental to Atletico’s relentless defensive brilliance.

The standard of performance he produced on Saturday night was nothing new, and now the only question, both from his stats and the overall impression gained from watching him play, is whether any other goalkeeper in the world can claim to be better than Oblak?

If there is anyone, perhaps he was the man at the other end of the pitch on Saturday: Barca’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Barcelona Marc-Andre ter Stegen

Barcelona Marc-Andre ter Stegen

He didn’t have much chance to prove it this weekend as Atletico were restricted to a couple of tame efforts from Antoine Griezmann, but ter Stegen has matured into a wonderfully reliable presence, having overcome a propensity to make silly errors which dogged the early days of his spell as Barca’s starter.

In particular, the German’s distribution abilities are second to none and play a major part in allowing his team to pursue their possession-based strategy. His passes out from the back – long or short – are unerringly accurate, and his ability to receive the ball under pressure and still produce a measured pass give him the edge on Oblak in that respect.

If Oblak is marginally the better shot-stopper, while ter Stegen is a superior distributor, is there anyone who beats them all-round?

Probably not, but the only other goalkeeper who is often championed as the world’s best will have a chance to state his claim very soon: David de Gea of Manchester United…and we all know their next game is against.

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