Atlético Madrid breaks through, sends Barcelona out of Champions League
For the first time in seven years, Barcelona will not be among the last four teams standing in UEFA Champions League. After Koke’s early goal stood up at the Vicente Calderón, Atlético Madrid is through to its first semifinal in 40 years, with the team’s 1-0 (2-1, aggregate) win escorting the three-time champions out of the tournament.
Atlético struck first during a dominant opening spell, with a slew of chances near the five-minute-mark allowing Koke to blast home the game’s only goal. Though the Spanish leaders produced a series of close calls on both sides of halftime, they were made to defend their 1-0 lead to the final whistle, eventually producing their first win of the season over Barcelona.
Between La Liga, Spanish Super Cup, and Champions League, the teams had faced each other four previous times this season, with each match ending in a draw. Last week’s game in Barcelona saw Atlético take a 1-1 result out of the Nou Camp, with the away goal potentially looming large in today’s second leg.
Thanks to Koke’s opener, however, Atlético didn’t need to rely on its tiebreaker edge. Finally breaking through against last year’s Spanish champions, a team that hasn’t been to the finals since 1974 is one step closer to another shot. Diego Simeone’s team joins Bayern Munich, Chelsea, and rival Real Madrid in Europe’s final four.
An overwhelming opening 12 minutes put Atlético on the scoresheet early. Unable to deal with the hosts’ high pressure, Barcelona gave up a series of chances in the fifth minute, with a sequence that started with an Adrían López shot off the right post ending with Koke slamming the opener into an empty net. In a spell where Atleti had three chances, the final one was the charm. For the third time in five meetings, Atlético struck first against Barcelona.
Throughout the first half, Simeone’s side had a number of chances to take its first two-goal lead over Barcelona this year. Moments after the opener, Atlético’s pressure produced another opportunity, with David Villa’s shot going out for a corner after Dani Alves’ desperate block. In the 12th minute, a Villa blast from the left hit the near post, while another chance for the former Barcelona striker nailed the cross-bar in the 21st minute.
By that time, Barcelona had come into the match, adjusting to Atlético’s pressure to maintain two-thirds of the half’s possession. Chances were still difficult to come by, however, even if the best opportunities fell to the team’s danger man. Shortly after Villa’s first shot off the post, Messi was given a free header from near the Atlético penalty spot, but he was unable to steer the Alves cross on goal. Later in the half, after Neymar beat two players down the left, a ball sent across the top of the six couldn’t be put on target, with Messi pushing his shot wide of the near post.
At the beginning of the second, Barcelona started looking more like their normal selves, proving more purposeful with its possession in the half’s opening moments. In the 48th minute, a perfectly weighted Xavi Hernández through ball tested Atlético goalkeeper Thibault Courtois, with the Belgian charging off his line to get a left hand to the ball as Neymar tried to touch it into space. Moments later, as a recovering Courtois stumbled near his line, a ball falling to Messi was volleyed over the bar, with Barcelona’s biggest star missing another chance to bring his side level.
The close call served as a wake up call for Atlético, who kept Barcelona without any meaningful chances over the next 15 minutes. Once the game began opening up, it was the home side who proved more threatening. Substitute Diego blasted a chance from a sharp angle into Pinto’s gloves in the 65th minute. Gabi failed to convert a breakaway created by Villa in the 71st minute, weakly hitting a shot into Pinto’s boots. Javier Mascherano was fortunate not to draw Howard Webb’s whistle while playing catchup on Villa in the 72nd. Just as in the first half, Atlético was collecting a serious of misses that would only heighten the heartbreak, should Barcelona come back.
Even as Atlético started to recede further into its own half, it was still producing the better chances. New full-time, substitute Cristian Rodríguez was sent in on down through the left of the penalty area only to put another shot off Pinto’s gloves. Moments later, pressure on the Barcelona keeper saw Víctor Valdés’ backup send a ball back across this empty goal. Though Barcelona was pursuing an equalizer, it was Atlético that was applying the pressure.
Come full time, a matchup that had been gloriously even through 360 minutes finally had a decisive winner. With an early goal and tests of ever part of Pinto’s goal, Atlético was clearly the better side, leaving both sides no doubts as to who deserved a spot in the Champions League semifinals.