Atletico Madrid's plan works perfectly to end Barcelona's Treble dream
MADRID, Spain -- Three things from the Estadio Vicente Calderon, where Atletico Madrid defeated Barcelona 2-0 in their Champions League quarterfinal second leg to claim a spot in the semifinals, 3-2 on aggregate.
1. Simeone's plan works to perfection
Antoine Griezmann's first-half header and second-half penalty, as well as a typically resolute defence performance, brought Atletico Madrid a richly deserved 2-0 victory over tournament favourites Barcelona and a chance to fight for the last four of the competition.
"Together to victory," said the Calderon mosaic as fans still upset at last week's refereeing in the first leg welcomed the teams to the pitch. Atletico began the game as if keen to score an early goal to shift the tie's momentum, and Gabi, Griezmann and Yannick Carrasco all had chances inside the first seven minutes.
The game then settled into the expected pattern; Barca had long spells of possession, without any penetration, while the home fans cheered their players into every tackle and interception.
Atletico were not attacking often, but they made one move pay on 36 minutes. Jordi Alba's clearance was wayward, Saul Niguez snaffled possession and clipped in a perfect cross for Griezmann to head into the net for 1-0; 2-2 on aggregate, and Atletico ahead on away goals.
"Atleti, Atleti," chanted the Calderon with thousands of rojiblanco scarves twirling in the air. Simeone's side had scored first against Barcelona in their other three meetings with the Catalans this season, but still lost the previous three. Here, they did not just sit back to protect their lead, with another burst of attacks early in the second half leading to Saul's clever header beating Ter Stegen but bouncing back off the crossbar.
Barca eventually cranked up the pressure and Atletico's defence was pushed very deep, with team leaders Gabi and Diego Godin hacking clear from their own six-yard box. But Barca looked short on ideas, the home defence was super organised and Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak was generally untroubled.
The game got scrappier and scrappier, which suited Simeone's team perfectly, as the minutes ticked away and an 11th clean sheet in their past 12 home Champions League games neared. Barca only scored in this tie when against 10 men after Fernando Torres was sent off in the first leg. Surely no team has ever defended quite as well, so often.
Luis Enrique's team were getting desperate and left holes at the back, which were expertly punished by Filipe Luis' run and Griezmann's 87th-minute spot kick. The Calderon was truly rocking now.
Simeone has won only two of his 17 games against Barcelona during his time in charge of Atletico. But they have been the two biggest European nights. And just like two years ago, his men had eliminated Barca from the Champions League in the last eight.
2. Barca's Treble dream gone
Just last month, it seemed Barca's march toward a "double Treble" of Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey was all but certain. But the wheels have come off their season at just the wrong time -- with their MSN front three all floundering on Wednesday night.
Messi's only real noticeable intervention in the first half was a committed run back into his half to stop Carrasco from counter-attacking, with the Argentine generally having little effect on proceedings going the other way.
Neymar was also quiet, with one long-range shot easily saved by Oblak. Luis Suarez only got involved in the opening 45 minutes during a clash with countryman Godin, which recalled him walking a very tight disciplinary line in the first leg, but did not bring punishment from Italian referee Andrea Rizzoli.
Moving the ball around for long spells in their own half, with Ter Stegen more involved than the front three, was okay when Barca were ahead on aggregate. Something different was needed once they had gone behind, but the thrilling attacking unit of a month back was nowhere to be seen.
Into the second half and Messi was back in his own half, trying to get Barca going. There was still a lack of real urgency, although one 20-yard shot from the Argentine was deflected just wide. Luis Suarez was again lucky to just see yellow after yet another clash with Godin. A frustrated Neymar was also booked for sending Juanfran into advertising hoardings.
There was very little joining up and attacking play among the front three, as Barca resorted to crosses tossed into the box. Suarez had a couple of half-chances, but Oblak easily dealt with two shots on the turn. Messi's late free kick drifted wide and his run without a goal stretched to 452 minutes -- his longest barren spell at club level in almost five years, which has come at the worst possible time for him and his club.
3. Griezmann the goal-scoring hero
Griezmann had a decent record against Barcelona when at former club Real Sociedad, regularly playing a role as the blaugrana slipped up on their bogey ground of Anoeta.
Since joining Atletico for €35 million in the summer of 2014, things had not gone so well for Griezmann against Barca; he failed to score in his first seven meetings with the Catalans, all of them defeats.
The France international had an excellent chance to improve that record on just seven minutes here, when he was picked out by Filipe Luis' excellent left-wing cross, but the header lacked the power to beat Ter Stegen.
Griezmann made no mistake half an hour later, meeting Saul's superbly flighted cross from the other side and flashing an unstoppable header to the net for probably the most important goal of his career.
The 24-year-old worked hard in defence, pressing Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique when Barca had the ball. He still had enough energy though to break on occasion, and almost made it 2-0 from a tight angle midway through the second half.
Griezmann also had enough composure late on from the spot, after brilliant work from Filipe Luis, and his penalty was low and just hard enough to beat Ter Stegen. Griezmann and his team had suffered often against Barca over the past two years, but on Wednesday night, they were far superior.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan