Champions League: Diego, Neymar goals leave Atlético, Barcelona even after leg one
Four games, four draws leave Barcelona and Atlético Madrid even after leg one of the teams’ UEFA Champions League quarterfinal, with the latest in the clubs’ combative, season-long struggle ending as even as the previous three. After 0-0, 1-1, and 0-0 results defined the teams’ matchups in August and January, April’s installment also failed to distinguish the sides, with goals from Brazilians Diego and Neymar leaving the teams drawn 1-1 after 90 minutes in Catalonia.
But to imply Diego’s score is a mere goal understates its quality. In the 56th minute, with the ball on the right flank, the January signing made a quick move around Xavi Hernández before launching a speculative shot from eight-to-10 yards above the penalty area. Hit hard enough to take all the spin off the ball, the man who came on for an injured Diego Costa saw his shot buckle toward the upper-right hand corner, beating Pinto with a shot Víctor Valdés would have been stressed to stop. For the second time this season, Atlético had a lead on Barcelona.
And for the season time this season, Neymar pulled it back. A quick run behind right back Juanfran just outside the penalty area 15 minutes later met a brilliant through ball from Andrés Iniesta. Opening his hips up on a far post curler, the Brazilian superstar nestled his shot in the right side netting, scoring his second huge goal of the season against Atlético.
A final 20 minutes of Barcelona pressure couldn’t find a winner, with trademark frantic but organized defending at the edge of Atlético’s penalty area keeping the home side from another breech of Thibault Courtois. As Barcelona continued to increase the pressure -- cognizant of the importance to taking a lead out of the first leg -- counter opportunities began to appear for Atlético. Promise and danger became symbiotic as Barcelona tried to break through, with Lionel Messi’s 86th minute free kick nearly cashing in while sending Courtois diving toward his post.
At Felix Brych’s final whistle, the score became the latest example of what a perfect match these teams have become. Through 360 minutes, nothing but an away goal in Barcelona meaningfully separates these two sides, with the technique, execution, and intensity of Barcelona thwarted in the face of the organization, determination, and intensity of Atlético. For every advantage the Blaugrana usually carry into a matchup, Atlético has an antidote: Belief coupled with proof that they are every bit their more renown opponents’ equals.
Gerard Piqué's first half injury could have been decisive, but Barcelona’s possession game (71%) rendered it meaningless. Diego Costa leaving at the half hour mark should have been a devastating blow for Atlético; instead, Diego’s inclusion ended up producing an away goals edge. No matter how much fate, happenstance, misfortunate or luck try to separate these teams, Atlético and Barcelona seem destined to finish as equals.
Only now, the teams aren’t exactly equal. Just as Neymar’s away goal at the Vicente Calderón provided a superficial difference in August (one that won Barcelona the Spanish Supercopa), Diego’s blast at the Nou Camp has Atlético in front. Next week in Madrid, that seemingly innate organization and intensity that the Colchoneros have carried to the top of the Spanish league could also carry them into the Champions League semifinals. A third 0-0 between the teams will land Simeone’s side in the final four.