Barcelona had an easy night, as all the new champions needed to do was wait for a sloppy suicide.
Leading up to the match, feelings were mixed after Atleti’s successful Galician away tour that collected the four points necessary to secure the third and final UEFA Champions League spot so crucial to the club’s financial future.
On the one hand, caution prevailed.
Atleti needed to prove to themselves that they could beat one of the Big Two ahead of the Friday final showdown, where they must face the other one.
The Rojiblancos have been unable to beat both Barcelona and Real Madrid in the same week since the early 1940s. To make things bleaker, they only managed to reap four out of the available twenty-one points versus the other top-five teams on the table.
On the other, things looked positive, as the visiting Barça seemed tired from a long season where they finally seem to be on the verge of stepping down from the throne of best team of the world.
On the domestic front, Real Madrid’s draw Saturday night meant the title was won before a minute was played, and it was fair to expect a slightly demotivated opponent.
That expectation was met.
Atleti performed a guard of honour before the match began and seemed to continue paying homage, as the match more resembled a friendly than a contest. The visitors played at a walking pace, putting no pressure on their hosts, and appeared not particularly worried about the outcome.
Atlético slowed down their rhythm as well, and were relaxed in the match all evening.
With some starters being rested, four spots were swapped. Arda Turan made his way back to the starting line-up after a long absence, as did Adrián, who had lost his spot to Diego Costa and hadn’t started a home game in ages. Insúa made his debut as a starter, and Tiago replaced Mario, who ended the last match with a backache.
Again, it was a game of two halves.
In the first, Atleti were the stronger side, and looked dangerous, but were ineffective. Falcao did look more comfortable being partnered with Adrián than he had with Costa, and the partnership between Koke and Gabi worked well, but the famous ‘Cholo’ intensity was nowhere to be found. Arda was sought out by teammates to start plays but didn’t seem to be quite there yet.
The half ended goalless, with the two best chances falling on Barcelona’s side.
A midfield loss gave Messi the chance to assist Tello in a long run that caught the defence off guard, and only Godín managed to swipe the ball from under the young Catalan attacker before he was face-to-face with Courtois. Injury time saw Tello attempt a curling shot, but it went wide. The only change came right before the break, Bartra in for Dani Alves.
Atleti returned from the dressing room more focused and was very effective with their counterattack. Falcao netted the first clear shot he had all night. A nice sweeping strike from a midfield loss was carried out by Gabi, Adrián and Falcao but it seemed doomed to go nowhere when Gabi hesitated to decide the pass. A tackle on the captain sent all but Falcao in the wrong direction to receive the ball, giving the tiger the opportunity to show his claws.
Atletico seemed to have put the engine in full gear but the mirage lasted only a few minutes.
The equaliser came in classic Atleti fashion in these big games, when, rather than finishing off the enemy, the team drifted into a strange relaxed state, allowing their rivals to turn the match around in the blink of an eye.
Busquets and Villa had come on for a knocked Adriano and Song, while Atleti had brought on Cebolla and Costa to rest Arda and Falcao. Barcelona had not been close to scaring Courtois all night. The Catalonians seemed even more crippled, as Messi started to feel pain and walked off the pitch, leaving his team down to ten men. Alexis, who has been plain awful this season, unexpectedly completed a play with Cesc, and shot the ball to Courtois’ left, with many defenders around but an exasperating lack of intensity.
And if that weren’t punishment enough, eight minutes later, another inexplicable play left the stands rubbing their eyes in disbelief. Villa received a great pass from Tello after the youngster surprised with another talented play from the left and “el Guaje” shot wide and far from goal. Gabi intercepted the outgoing shot and netted the ball in an attempt to deflect. Courtois witnessed the own goal with a mix of surprise and fury. In a relatively uneventful night for him, he had seen two goals make it past him and made only one stop. Definitely not what he is used to here.
Óliver was called in to put out the fire but was left with few attacking players to receive his passes. Shots from Godín and Insúa illustrate who was commanding operations during the final minutes in the fruitless attempt to equalize. Insúa, who was shaky at times, was better at taking the ball forward than facing Alves, Messi or Tello in defense.
Barça were content to just kill time, and seemed unperturbed at playing one man down. Atleti’s shot in the foot (the second consecutive own goal in matches versus the Big Two) was fatal, and the match died in intensity, ending with Courtois trying to head in a corner kick.
The final whistle blew without further drama. Glory will have to wait for at least five days.
Note: Some 4,000 fans created an electric post-match atmosphere, chanting for players to return to the pitch. They continued with chants regarding the Cup final, Atleti’s sixth in three years. Four trophies already shine in our museum and the next one is on its way home.
Line-up: Courtois; Juanfran, Miranda, Godín, Insúa; Arda Turán (“Cebolla” Rodríguez “63), Gabi, Tiago, Koke ; Adrián (Óliver 75”) and Falcao (Diego Costa “67)
Goals: 1-0 Falcao (“51) ; 1-1 Alexis (“72); 1-2 Gabi o.g. (“80)