MADRID — Here are three quick thoughts from Barcelona’s 2-1 win over Atletico Madrid in the Copa del Rey semifinal first leg at the Estadio Vicente Calderon.
1. First-half burst sees Barca take control of tie
First-half goals at the Estadio Vicente Calderon from Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi set Barcelona on their way to the 2017 Copa del Rey final, though a second-half header from Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann kept the tie alive ahead of the second leg at the Camp Nou next Tuesday evening.
Blaugrana coach Luis Enrique said yesterday that “everything hinges on scoring away from home,” and within seven minutes, the visitors had taken that vital step. And what a goal it was. Javier Mascherano nicked the ball in midfield, and Suarez picked it up 50 yards out and just ran and ran straight through Diego Godin and Stefan Savic before knocking the finish past goalkeeper Miguel Angel Moya from the edge of the box.
Already at this stage it was looking like an uphill battle for Atletico, who tried to respond but were struggling to get into the game at all. A second goal was coming for Barca, and Messi supplied it with a 20-yard pile driver that entered the net off the post after good buildup work from Ivan Rakitic, Neymar and Suarez.
Atletico had to try to hit back after half-time, and a set piece always seemed their most likely way to get something. It was 2-1 just before the hour mark when a Koke free kick was nodded back across goal by Godin, and Griezmann rose to nod in at the other post. Substitute Fernando Torres then had a couple chances to equalise — with his team now on top in the game — but was unable to find the target.
Barca were hanging on a bit at the end, with Griezmann and another replacement, Kevin Gameiro, coming close. Although the second-half fight back at least brought some pride for Atletico’s fans, the holders are now big favourites to finish the job next week and reach another Copa final.
2. MSN run free in first half
Barca came to the Calderon missing injured midfielders Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, but Diego Simeone said yesterday that it was their forward line that really made the difference. Tonight, each of the “MSN” trio played a huge role in Barca’s victory.
While Suarez’s goal was mostly all his own work and Messi’s was another golazo pinged from 20 yards out, the link-up play among all three was excellent. The Argentine No. 10 often dropped deep into midfield, taking on Iniesta’s playmaking role and sending probing passes forward, with Neymar giving Sime Vrsaljko a particularly difficult first game against Barca.
At 1-0 up, Neymar probably should have scored himself from a Suarez assist, but it was not so important, and the pair were able to shrug and smile about the missed chance. The South American trio were less involved as Atletico fought back into the game in the second half, but they were always dangerous on the break.
Messi’s role by now was to take the sting out of the game, hold the ball and allow his defence to get its shape back. Luis Enrique’s strange decision to replace Ivan Rakitic with Denis Suarez meant they had none of their “gala” midfield from the past two seasons out there. The team suffered when Atletico upped the pressure after half-time, with Busquets and Iniesta badly missed. Neymar skied a late chance to have all of the “MSN” on the scoresheet again, but the miss is unlikely to prove too important.
3. Atletico get going too late
Pregame, Simeone spoke proudly of this being a sixth semifinal in five years for his team. But so far this season, his team seems below the level of recent years, and again tonight, the intensity of their big-game performance during the Argentine’s spell in charge was lacking.
The defensive solidity that has been so important to Atletico recently was almost totally absent in the first half. Savic was completely irrelevant for the first goal, when Suarez on his own completely opened up the Atletico back line. Vrsaljko was replaced at half-time after being given the runaround, but he was often isolated one-on-one versus Neymar, unlike in previous years, when Atletico defended so well as a team.
Often it was way too easy for Messi, Neymar or Suarez to pick up the ball, turn and start running, and once they picked up a pace, a foul was required to stop them. All of Saul Niguez and Savic were booked in this way in the first half, and at one point, it seemed that even Simeone was going to step from the bench to try to halt a Neymar run down the sideline after two Atletico defenders tried and failed.
The Argentine coach succeeded in raising the noise levels by sending on local hero Fernando Torres for Vrsaljko at the break. There was something of the old Atletico about their goal too, with Koke seeming to block Suarez’s run at the set piece, leaving Godin free to set up Griezmann to nod in.
The Calderon was belatedly involved in the action, and Atletico probably deserved an equaliser during the helter-skelter closing stages. But the damage had been done.