Barcelona beat Atletico Madrid thanks to Messi’s 600th goal
Andres Iniesta limps off with a hamstring injury as Catalans extend La Liga lead
Barcelona’s Paulinho and Lionel Messi celebrate after the match. Photograph: Albert Gea/Reuters
Barcelona 1 Atletico Madrid 0
Lionel Messi’s 600th goal carried Barcelona closer to the league title, his eighth at the club. As the ball hit the net, the Camp Nou chanted his name.
It was early still and Atlético Madrid refused to relinquish their challenge without a fight, but he had done it again. By the end, there was a huge roar here: another big night had the No 10’s signature scrawled across it. “If Messi had been wearing an Atlético shirt, we would have won,” Diego Simeone, the Atlético manager, said.
“There’s no one like him in the world. I don’t know what would have happened [if he’d been on the other team], nor do I want to imagine it,” Ernesto Valverde, the Barcelona manager, said. A single goal was enough but what a goal it was; a third free-kick in three days.
The clock showed 26 minutes and the ball was 25 yards from goal, just to left of centre, as Jan Oblak, the Atlético goalkeeper, looked at it. The problem was that it was one thing seeing it, another stopping it. It was, after all, Messi standing the other side of it, and he bent the ball in a long, sharp arc towards the top corner, swinging fast. Oblak dived with hand outstretched and although he could reach it, he could not keep it out.
It was the third consecutive match in which Messi scored from a free-kick, his sixth this season. Both are records in La Liga, where Barcelona now have an eight-point lead. Five games ago it had been 11 but three draws – against Espanyol, Getafe, and Las Palmas – cut that gap to five. Since Diego Costa’s arrival at Christmas, Atlético had been relentless, winning eight and drawing one of nine matches, contenders once more. They were not, though, able to win here. When the moment came, declared a decider with 11 games still to go, Barcelona beat them. “The best player is with them,” Simeone said.
The goal did not come in isolation. The ball had been Barcelona’s, the game played almost entirely in Atlético’s half. By half-time the visitors had taken a solitary shot – a long, harmless effort from Thomas Partey. If Barcelona had not created a really clear chance – assuming 25-yard free-kicks do not count as clear chances, even though with Messi that may need rethinking – the pressure had built since Andrés Iniesta’s early shot had been deflected wide. Oblak saved at the near post when Sergio Busquets diverted Philippe Coutinho’s effort a minute later, and Luis Suárez had two efforts blocked.
Messi somehow escaped a three-man cage, only for his shot to be under-hit and his first free-kick hit the wall. His second was perfect, though. Coutinho bent a shot into Oblak’s arms, then had a shot pushed away. André Gomes, on for Iniesta, was played into the area but, with support and space, did not so much produce a pull-back as a back-pass. And Gerard Piqué headed over from a corner. All that before the break.
Something shifted in the second half, although Barcelona had already looked less smooth, less assured once Iniesta had been forced off injured. Atlético took a step forward that was announced when Busquets was almost caught four minutes in, pressing higher. They knew they had to go for it now, and the changes reflected that: Sime Vrsaljko and Gabi were removed early, Ángel Correa and Kevin Gameiro replacing them.
There were still 15 minutes left when Simeone made his last change, going to three at the back. Barcelona were uncomfortable, Gomes in particular; the Camp Nou sensed vulnerability and so did Atlético. Costa, chasing alongside Samuel Umtiti, had his first shot and Antoine Griezmann sliced over. The sense of danger was there but it rarely solidified.
The game opened up and the tiredness started to show. Barcelona found space to go into if not always the legs. Messi’s shot was deflected over and Oblak pushed away a volley from Busquets. At the other end, Gameiro got the late goal that would have left the league wide open, but the flag was up for offside against Costa. Suárez, too, had the ball in the net, and was denied. Messi wasn’t: his moment decided the game and perhaps the title.