The match day attire of the bosses of Barcelona and Atletico Madrid gave an indication of the tactical approaches of their respective sides. Diego Simeone, happy in his lair at the Vicente Calderon was clad from head to toe in black, like a managerial raven of doom. The sombre vibe was topped off with long, slicked-back hair. The Argentinean resembled a particularly vicious bad guy in a Quentin Tarantino flick. The kind who would return your remains to loved ones through a letter box using a tube.
Barcelona boss, Tata Martino, was on the opposite bench dressed in a lime green polo shirt and cream slacks. It was a wholesome American pie and white picket fence vibe in stark contrast to his growling, touchline patrolling countryman. The battle for the first leg of Spain’s Super Cup was very much Clark Kent against General Zod.
Atletico Madrid played the match as if the team was in the worst of moods and looking to reek some planet-ending havoc. Tackles flew in, elbows went astray, shoulder barges went unchecked. But a referee who would be considered “English” in La Liga due to his leniency, allowed play to continue despite some hairy moments from the Rojiblancos, all over the pitch.
It was that willingness from the man-in-the-middle to remember that football is a contact sport that allowed Atletico to steal the ball from Barcelona’s forward-line to give an ecstatic David Villa the chance to put one over on his old club.
Simeone knew that waiting around for Barca to do their tippy-tappy stuff was never going to get the required result in Wednesday’s late late show. Instead, the Argentinean boss instructed his team to do what it does best. And that is play aggressive, high intensity, passionate football. This commitment and energy was matched by a typically boisterous Calderon crowd, who enjoyed every second of Barcelona being bossed about.
For much of the game, the visitors were barely allowed a second on the ball. Forwards were unable to turn, fullbacks were clattered and the midfield was harassed. An injured Messi looked most bemused looking out from the Barcelona bench in the second half as the punishment continued. There may have been relief etched onto the Argentinean’s face as well.
Neymar’s equalising effort, which took advantage of a loss of concentration from fullback, Juanfran, may have undone a lot of Atletico’s hard work to put Barcelona in the driving seat for the second leg. However, it cannot alter one truth in the current world of La Liga—that on a good day the Rojiblancos are able match Spain’s Big Two slug-for-slug.
This was proved by the fact that Atletico were in the Spanish Super Cup contest at all, an appearance which owed itself to a Copa del Rey victory against Real Madrid in the Santiago Bernabeu last May.
The problem for the Madrid side in trying to match Barcelona and Real in the league is the effort and intensity required week-in, week-out. Injuries will always take their toll, as will the smaller size and reduced quality of the squad. On Wednesday, Martino was able to bring Cesc Fabregas and Neymar off the bench to boost the attack. The Vicente Calderon club fielded youth-teamer, Oliver Torres, and a countryman of Neymar, Leo Baptistao, who was signed from Rayo Vallecano.
The ability to have around hundreds of millions in euros in talent on the bench is the real difference between the top two, and Atletico Madrid. The Super Cup first-leg showed that, given a bit more resources, La Liga’s two horse race could have three thoroughbreds galloping to the finishing line.