Barcelona vs. Atletico Madrid: Tito Vilanova Passes Test with Flying Colors
Despite Atletico Madrid's best efforts, Barcelona's quality was just too much for Diego Simeone's team as they bounced back from a one-goal deficit to record a resounding 4-1 win.
In doing so, they stretched their lead at the top of the table to nine points, and Real Madrid's 2-2 draw with Espanyol earlier in the day allowed the Catalans to open up a 13-point lead over their traditional league rivals.
First, Barcelona should be commended for their ability to deal with adversity. Last Tuesday I wrote about how Tito Vilanova had yet to face a true challenge to his Barca team's supremacy, and how Atletico Madrid would offer one of the first true challenges of the season.
It indeed proved to be quite a challenge, making Barca's ability to still come out victorious all the more impressive.
Even though the final result makes it appear as though Atletico Madrid failed to put up a fight, as they did against Real Madrid two weeks ago, the reality was in fact very different.
For the first 30 minutes, Radamel Falcao was a constant menace to the Barca offense, hitting the woodwork once, coming within inches of the goal on separate incident and finally finding the back of the net on the third time of asking with a delightful chip over Victor Valdes.
Once Barcelona weathered that early storm however, they bounced back emphatically and never let control of the game shift back to Atletico Madrid. As per usual, Barca dominated possession 75 percent to 25 percent and recorded six shots on target to Atletico Madrid's one.
It was not the usual suspects of Xavi, Iniesta or Lionel Messi who brought Barcelona back in the game, as they have done so often in their careers. Credit must be given to Simeone; his team excellently marked Barca's elite trio out of the game for the first half.
But in doing so, they gave the rest of the team the chance to shine, and Adriano and Sergio Busquets were quick to seize those chances with two brilliant solo goals.
With Barca desperately needing to take some momentum away from Atletico, Adriano excellently captured the ball off a cross-field cross, waited for the second defender to commit himself too closely, then dribbled back to the top-right of the box, and with plenty of confidence smashed a golazo beyond Thibaut Courtois' despairing hands.
Busquets' goal was nowhere near as impressive, but its influence on the game cannot be understated as it allowed Barcelona to capture the momentum and the lead with less than a minute left in the first half. Effectively, it undid all the good work Atletico had done for 66 percent of the game to that point.
In the second half, it was business as usual as Lionel Messi grabbed a brace, Xavi dominated the midfield with pass after pass, and Iniesta combined excellently with his teammates in attack.
But without the contribution of Barca's less-heralded stars, the game could've gone very different for Barcelona.
Sanchez may end up being credited with an assist on Messi's third goal, but in truth Messi did most of the work for that goal on his own. And aside from that contribution, Sanchez did very little.
He got the fewest touches on the ball of anyone his team (aside from Valdes) and had the lowest pass-accuracy percentage of anyone on his team as well (again, aside from Valdes).
Pedro's performance was roughly the same; he got six more touches on the ball and passed with great accuracy, but he wasn't even involved in a single goal the way Sanchez was. His only major contribution on offense was to get dispossessed twice and to turn the ball over another three times.
Luckily, Barcelona have a good number of alternatives waiting for their chance in reserve. David Villa, if given the chance to play, is far more dangerous than either winger, and Isaac Cuenca, who is almost fully recovered from a serious knee injury suffered last year, is an excellent passer of the ball, giving the Catalan side another option to explore.
Finally, Cristian Tello, though sometimes too inclined to shoot rather than pass, offers yet another option in situations where Barca need an additional goal scorer more than they need a passer.
Overall, Barcelona have passed their latest test with flying colors, and won't face one like it until mid-January when they take on Manuel Pellegrini's Malaga away from home. Til then, while they cannot rest on their laurels and take games for granted, it should be smooth sailing for Tito and the boys.
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