A Lionel Messi free-kick won the match for Barcelona but their spirit and sacrifice is what saw them past Atltico Madrid
Diego Simeone was sitting under the main stand at Europe’s largest stadium but for a moment, he was back in a playground 10,000km away. There two kids stand a few metres apart and edge towards each other, one step at a time, in turn, heel to toe, “bread” and “cheese” accompanying every tiny advance. Eventually one treads on the other – the winner now and, let’s face it, the winner in the game too.
“Pan. I’ll have Leo.”
It was the game they said would decide the Spanish league title, played in front of 90,356 people and broadcast across the world, a huge clash between Atlético Madrid and Barcelona, two of the biggest clubs on the planet, whose budgets together go beyond a billion euros. Simeone, though, said it was “like the barrio.”
“Only one person gets to pick the best player. And the best player, well, he’s with them,” Atlético’s manager said after Barcelona had defeated them 1-0 at Camp Nou. “If we took the Barcelona shirt off Messi and put him in an Atlético shirt, we might have won,” Simeone said.
“I don’t know what would have happened,” the Barcelona manager, Ernesto Valverde, responded then quickly added: “I don’t want to imagine it either.”
Valverde didn’t have to imagine it; he’s been there, “suffering”, as he put it. The moment that ultimately decided the game, and perhaps the title, came in the 26th minute. Messi dashed inside and was brought down by Thomas Partey. Twenty-five yards out, he placed the ball. Another free-kick. He’d already scored four of them in 2018 – as many as the rest of the league put together – and two in a week, against Girona the Saturday before and in Las Palmas barely 70 hours earlier. It was some way out, a little to the right, and the man facing it, peering round Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Piqué, was Jan Oblak, the goalkeeper with the best record in Spain. Yet still the anticipation was palpable. Almost as if he should score. On the touchline, Valverde watched and waited.
“When I was on the other team, I always thought he was going to score,” he said afterwards. “Now, you stand there with that touch of hope: ‘let’s see’. Maybe it’s that fear is stronger [than optimism], but you are pushing, willing him to score, although you’re better to just leave him to get on with it, because he does it wonderfully.” Against Girona, Messi hit the free-kick under the wall; against Las Palmas, he hit it hard and fast, bending it a bit too; against Atlético, Piqué, Busquets and Rakitic held each other, seemingly trying to open a gap to the left where Koke stood, but Messi struck it a long way up and a long way down too, the ball swinging and curling towards the near top corner. In the wall, Diego Costa and Saúl jumped – high – but couldn’t stop it; behind them, Oblak dived, seeing the ball spin off the ends of his fingers. Messi’s third free-kick in three games, a record in La Liga, was the 600th goal of his career and the only goal of the game.
Asked afterwards if Messi practises free-kicks in training, Valverde looked on the verge of laughing. There was a long pause. “Yes,” Barcelona’s manager grinned. “He practises always. And he scores always.” He scored here too. The ball went in the corner where, as the Spanish phrase has it, spiders spin webs between post and bar. On Cadena Ser radio, the commentator Lluis Flaquer shouted: “RIP, spider!” The stadium was shouting too.
Asked if he agreed with his manager’s thoughts on Messi, Atlético’s José María Giménez replied: “Who wouldn’t? If the manager says that, what more can I say? He’s from another planet.”
“That’s their bad luck; he’s with us,” Jordi Alba said, almost giggling, afterwards. “You have to appreciate the whole team’s work, but he gives you a big advantage.”
His goal certainly did. Five weeks ago, Barcelona’s lead at the top had been 11 points, but by Sunday, it was five. Lose and Atlético would be two points away – and they had won eight of nine, drawing the other, top of the “table” in 2018. As Messi’s shot flew into the net, Barcelona went eight points clear, and with head-to-head goal difference, a step closer to the title. It could be their ninth since Messi made his debut in October 2004 and with 11 games remaining no one has ever relinquished a lead as large. “Barcelona wouldn’t normally lose four, five games between now and the end but as football is so wonderful, all we can do is keep playing,” Simeone said.
“Messi embraces the league,” ran the cover of AS. Marca’s cover called his free-kick, taken by “a sniper”, a “coup on the league” and its match report ran with the headline: “Messi decrees it is his league.” “God’s league”, cheered Sport, God (Dios) spelt with his shirt number: D10S. “Paradise is Messi,” they claimed. “The league, to Messi’s tune,” El País said. El Mundo Deportivo zoomed in on his boots: “the league at his feet.”
Yet if there’s a lot in that, there was something in Alba’s words, too. This wasn’t only about Messi. If he won the match, his team made sure they did not lose it. There was a kind of pride in Simeone’s insistence afterwards that Valverde has “reinvented” Barcelona, doing a “marvellous” job adapting to circumstance and showing that “4-3-3 is not the only way to play.” He said he liked seeing Barcelona play 4-4-2, “closing off”, and would have appreciated the judgement of the former Barça player Lobo Carrasco, who insisted “Barcelona were able to turn themselves into Atlético”. And while that fed into Simeone’s insistence that Messi is the difference, the man for whom “there is no system,” giving value to what he has done at Atlético and justifying the defeat, it was also a telling comment on the collective at Camp Nou.
Atlético arrived having scored nine times in four days. In the first half, they had just one shot, barely able to escape their half. In the second, they took a step forward, producing a performance Simeone said was his team. Sergio Busquets admitted that Barcelona had “suffered”, talking about the tiredness of a team who had returned from the Canary Islands at 5am on Friday. Yet Busquets also said: “that is how you win leagues.” And although Valverde admitted that there were “nerves”, it is not like Barcelona were under siege: Atlético had a solitary shot on target, just five over all, and Marc-Andre ter Stegen didn’t have to make a save. “They’re a great team and they didn’t have chances,” Valverde said.
Barcelona denied Atlético twice; first through pressing, then through positioning. Gerard Piqué was alert to everything; Samuel Umtiti quietly dominated, almost absurdly cool. Andrés Iniesta, described by his manager as “unique”, was on top until he was removed, injured. Busquets controlled.
Alongside him Ivan Rakitic was all things to all people, and always the right thing: sometimes back, sometimes forward, sometimes to the side, sometimes in the middle. “What can I say?” Valverde shrugged. “He balances us absolutely: he has everything.” Alba and Sergi Roberto only occasionally went forward and instead did the thing some think they can’t do: defend. And if that’s not very ‘Barcelona’, if this isn’t that Barcelona, mostly it’s working.
Much is made of Atlético’s defensive record, and rightly so, but they’ve only conceded one fewer than Valverde’s side, who have kept 15 clean sheets. Valverde talked about that hint of Atlético in his team, about the “sacrifice” and “solidarity”. “I said that we were reliable when it came to big games, in the sense that we always compete. We suffered, but you have to suffer to beat Atlético,” he said. Having Messi helps too. Imagine if he had been on our side, Simeone suggested, so his opposite number was asked to do so.
“What for?” Barcelona’s manager said. “He’s with us.”
• Espanyol goalkeeper Diego López flew out of goal and into the onrushing striker. With the keeper down and hardly moving, as the doctors ran on, his team-mate Esteban Granero approached, asked a question and then spoke to the cameraman at the side of the pitch: “Can you please tell his family watching on television that he’s ok?” López was carried off and was kept in hospital overnight but will be fine. In his absence, Levante took the lead but a late, late Léo Baptistão goal denied them a huge victory at the bottom – and cost manager Juan Ramón López Muñiz his job.
• Deportivo de La Coruña started their fifth different goalkeeper on Saturday but 39 minutes into Maksym Koval’s debut they had to turn back to number four. They were probably grateful to do so. Koval messed up for the first, letting a long cross go past him, standing horribly out of position as Inui scored, and then messed up what might have been the second too. Racing from the area after badly mis-controlling a risky back pass, he dived in studs first and wiped out Joan Jordán, getting a deserved red card. “I played him because he has more character,” Clarence Seedorf admitted. Still, at least he had seen his team equalise by then when Eibar goalkeeper Dimitrovic scored an unlucky own goal, the ball bouncing off the post, off his arms and into the net, just moments after striker Andone had missed an opportunity and bitterly muttered at him: “How lucky are you?”
• At this stage of the season no first division debutant has ever been better than Girona.
• Geoffrey Kondogbia: time to start a collection? Valencia have a €25m purchase option on him in the summer and there’s no doubt he’s worth every cent. All they need to do is find the money. For him and for Gonçalo Guedes.
• “To Paris with a pair” said the front of Marca, on the morning of the day that supposedly decided the league. The pair being Cristiano’s – and, yes, in Spanish that is the deliberate double entendre you probably think it is, applicable after he scored twice against Getafe, while Bale got the other. But that’s not the only pair Madrid are taking with them. “Modric and Kroos ready for Paris” shouted the front of AS, on the morning after the day that supposedly decided the league.
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