Barcelona went out of the Champions League Wednesday, failing to reach the semi-finals for the first time in seven seasons – but their place in the last four is going to a good home.
Atletico Madrid’s Vicente Calderon stadium shook from first minute to last with the sound of their supporters urging them past the four-time competition winners. And the frame of Barcelona’s goal shook three times as the home side battered post and bar in a bid to enjoy a calmer finish.
Their second goal never came but their resolve saw them through. They march on and Barcelona scratch their heads wondering how to rebuild their shaky defence without the use of the next two transfer windows.
Lionel Messi was the first to shoot. The Argentine had drawn a blank in the four previous games between these two teams this season and this effort did not test the Belgian. That was the last we saw of Barcelona’s forward line for a while.
First Raul Garcia sent a shot just over Jose Pinto’s bar. That was the Barcelona keeper’s first and last warning. Moments later he was picking the ball out of the back of his net. Adrian hit the post and the ball bounced out to David Villa, who crossed for Adrian and he laid the ball back to Koke, who shot past the Barça keeper. Any fears that Atletico Madrid would be toothless without the injured Diego Costa had been unfounded.
The team news had been good news for Barcelona with La Liga’s second-top scorer Costa not even on the bench. Simeone was forced to play Adrian in his place. The striker Arsenal wanted last summer and who most Atletico fans would have happily seen leave came into the game having scored only two goals all season, but he had rattled the frame of the goal and then set up the first.
To say that woke up the Vicente Calderon would be to ignore the fact that the Atletico Madrid supporters had been going up through the decibels long before kick-off. The early siege continued with Villa twice shaking the frame of Pinto’s goal. The nervous keeper almost conceded possession when sold short with a back-pass as Barcelona continued to be second best to everything, with their midfield metronome Sergio Busquets lost in a sea of red and white striped shirts and booked for a late challenge.
This was Barcelona gunning for a seventh consecutive semi-final place against an Atletico Madrid side who had not made it to the last four for 40 years. Their stadium mosaic spelled out ‘win, win, and win again’. It was one of former Atletico Madrid and Spain coach Luis Aragones’ favourite phrases. The last time they were in a European Cup semi-final he was in the team.
Yet it looked for all the world as if the home side had the recent Champions League pedigree. Messi headed wide and then sent a shot even further wide from a Neymar cross as Barcelona tried to give their shell-shocked defence some respite. Andres Iniesta got his first shot on target but Thibaut Courtois saved comfortably. Referee Howard Webb then waved away penalty appeals at both ends with Adrian and Cesc Fabregas going down in the respective goal areas.
The second half began with Courtois diving brilliantly at the feet of Neymar to take the ball off the Brazilian’s toe. The ball ran to Xavi but he could not finish.
The fear for Atletico was that Pedro and Alexis Sanchez would hop off the bench and run their tired team out of the Champions League. Atletico must have sensed that hitting the post three times in the first half, as they did, could still prove costly.
Sanchez was the first to enter the fray, on for Fabregas. Atletico brought on Diego Ribas – the player who had scored at the Nou Camp seven days earlier – to replace Adrian. Diego had Atletico’s next chance but Pinto saved it. From Koke’s corner Diego Godin’s header was comfortably taken by the keeper.
Atletico were finding oxygen from somewhere. Villa was still giving defender Marc Bartra a torrid time and when he sent Gabi down the left the midfielder should have given him the ball back, but he shot straight at Pinto.
In the end one goal was enough and the Vicente Calderon could celebrate one of its greatest ever nights.