Diego Simeone doesn’t often break into a smile, but there were times in his post-game press conference after the 1-1 draw with Barcelona in the Champions League when he looked like he was close to cracking.
“I’m happy—very, very happy,” he said after watching his side score what could prove to be a valuable away goal in Tuesday night’s clash at Camp Nou.
Atletico Madrid have now met Barca on four separate occasions this season, and they’ve still yet to taste defeat. They’ve not yet tasted victory either to be fair, but you got the feeling from Simeone, although there is plenty of work to do when the two sides reconvene next week at the Vicente Calderon, that this draw was their best of the four so far.
Diego, who replaced the injured Diego Costa in the first half, opened the scoring after the break with an absolute cracker that flew into the diagonal between the post and the crossbar—Jose Pinto had no chance, nor would Victor Valdes have had.
David Villa had missed two decent chances in the first half, but after Neymar equalised from the majestic Andres Iniesta’s incisive pass, it was the Catalans who piled on the late pressure in a bubbling Camp Nou.
It was put to El Cholo that the late pressure from the home side, coupled with the six yellow cards his players had picked up, might worry him ahead of the return leg.
He didn’t agree, instead laughing and quipping that “this is Atletico Madrid” in a nod towards the resilient mentality that personified him as a player and now personifies Atleti as a team among the very best in Europe.
The reporter was right to pose the question, but Simeone was equally right in his reply.
This is an Atletico Madrid side with the best defence in La Liga, an Atletico Madrid side that has only conceded twice in four games against Barca and an Atletico Madrid side with the impressive Thibaut Courtois in goal.
“Thibaut is very young, but he is an outstanding goalkeeper, and I am very happy for his impact in the draw,” Simeone said about the Belgian stopper, who produced outstanding saves from Iniesta—twice—and Sergio Busquets to keep the tie delicately poised.
And it is in Barca’s inability to find a winner that probably led to Simeone nearly breaking into a smile.
UEFA’s full-time report chronicled 18 shots from the home side, 12 of which were on target and five of those drawing saves from Courtois. It might not have been imperative for Gerardo Martino’s men to breach him for a second time, but it will be in the second leg.
With Barca needing to score, Simeone refused to admit that he saw the Diego strike as “decisive.” The implication was there, though.
When the two sides met in the league at the Calderon in January, it ended goalless—a result that would see Atleti progress if it is repeated next week.
“It will be a tough, competitive game, but my team will play with heart and we will be spurred on by our great fans,” Atleti’s Argentine coach continued in respect to next week’s decider.
Atletico now have the narrowest of leads in two competitions: They lead Barcelona by one point in the league and by a solitary away goal in the Champions League. They also have the benefit of home advantage in the second leg and knowing that Barca must attack them.
The factors contribute to Atletico, by the tiniest of margins, having the tag of favourites for the first time in a long time in this previously one-sided rivalry.
However, this is Barcelona, and with players like Lionel Messi and Neymar at their disposal, anything could happen in the sequel—it is going to be fun.
*Quotes obtained by the writer.