Barcelona drew first blood in the race for the Copa del Rey final on Wednesday night, winning 2-1 against Atlético at the Vicente Calderón thanks to goals from Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi.
However, that doesn’t tell half the story, with an inspired second half performance from Atleti not enough to save the result despite Antoine Griezmann’s goal to reduce the arrears.
It was a real game of two halves, full of goalmouth action and played at the high intensity that we have been used to seeing from these two teams in recent meetings.
Simeone opted to partner Griezmann with Carrasco up front, playing Juanfran at right wing with Sime Vrsaljko behind him in defence.
It was a choice that didn’t last long though, the Croatian full-back taking the hit after a poor first half team performance that saw him withdrawn at half-time for Fernando Torres.
At that point, Barça were strolling towards the final with a two goal lead, Luis Suárez running through the rojiblanco backline to open the scoring before Messi fired home an excellent second.
It could’ve been more as well, Neymar unable to profit from his striker partners’ generosity as the front three were given the freedom of the Manzanares to create chances on the counter attack.
Fans were scratching their heads, wondering what had happened to the team that knocked the Blaugrana out of the Champions League last season, but were given a timely reminder after the break as Atleti came out a different team.
Heads could’ve easily dropped, but as soon as the whistle went for the second half it was Barça under the cosh, hanging on for dear life to what had been a comfortable lead.
Substitute Torres caused all sorts of problems, and linked up with Gabi to present the captain with what should’ve been a goal, if not for Jordi Alba’s last ditch challenge.
Koke then tested Cillessen with a long ranger, before Griezmann headed the home side back into the tie as he rose highest to convert Godín’s flick across for 2-1.
It was a goal that helped the team and fans find their belief again, and really should’ve been the first of a famous comeback if not for a combination of bad luck and fantastic, but rather fortunate goalkeeping.
Minutes after finding the net, Griezmann got onto the end of Filipe’s ball into the six-yard box, but somehow goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen managed to deny him with a point blanc saved just as the Calderón prepared to erupt.
The Frenchman continued to press forward and was also involved in defence, although perhaps a little too enthusiastically at times as he gave away a couple of free-kicks in dangerous positions.
Thankfully, the visitors couldn’t profit and allowed Atleti to continue coming at them, and that they did. Carrasco tried, Gameiro tried and Torres – most notably with a delightful backheel attempt – also came close, but the ball just wouldn’t go in.
At the other end, Neymar had the chance to kill the tie as the ball fell to him in space inside the box, but he skied the ball into the Fondo Sur behind the goal.
There was still time for Torres to go close again after Mascherano lost the ball in a good position, but he couldn’t find the target. Griezmann then saw a shot whistle just an inch or two past the post.
On another day it could’ve ended 5-5, but Barça it was who took their chances and will go into the second leg at the Camp Nou as strong favourites to progress to the final.
However, despite conceding two vital away goals, Atleti fans can feel a strange sense of satisfaction after seeing a level of performance that hasn’t been produced now for a good few months.
Whether we qualify or not, if the team can play like they did in the second half more often then there will be brighter times to come this season. We’re clearly still capable.
Unfortunately, the excellent Gabi will miss the second leg through suspension after picking up a late yellow card, but Neymar will also miss out for the same reason which is a boost.
The return takes place a week on Tuesday, with Atleti hosting Leganés in between on Saturday evening.
Player ratings: Moyá 6, Vrsaljko 5, Godín 6, Savic 5, Filipe 7, Juanfran 6, Gabi 8 (MOTM), Koke 7, Saúl 6, Griezmann 7, Carrasco 7. Subs: Torres 7, Gaitán 5, Gameiro 5.