Atletico Madrid v Barcelona: 6 Things We Learned
Atletico Madrid defeated Spanish rivals Barcelona 1-0 in a thrilling Champions League encounter on Wednesday night to advance to the competition's semi-finals for the first time in 40 years.
After a tense 1-1 draw at the Nou Camp in last week's first leg, Diego Simeone's inspired outfit simply needed to keep a clean sheet to progress into the final four—a task the home side completed with aplomb.
An early goal from Koke quickly asserted Atletico's dominance in the critical second leg, paving the way for a barrage of attempts that could have seen the clash effectively ended within 20 minutes.
The visitors did find their footing in the match after the break, but they were unable to grab the needed equaliser as their Champions League campaign failed to reach the semi-finals for the first time since 2007.
Presented across the following slides are six things we learned from Wednesday's heavyweight clash.
Barcelona's Goalkeeping Issues Continue to Grow
After a shaky performance against Atletico Madrid in the first leg of this Champions League quarter-final, Jose Manuel Pinto did little to address the concerns of Barcelona fans on Wednesday.
In the early stages of the match at the Vicente Calderon, the 38-year-old produced another bout of nervy moments on the ball, which almost saw the visitors concede in comical fashion.
Despite producing an important second-half save from a Cristian Rodriguez strike, the Barcelona keeper made another dubious move on the ball, almost losing possession in his own box with just minutes to play.
In the absence of Victor Valdes (something which isn't set to end anytime soon), Pinto has been forced to assume a leading role during a critical and uncomfortable stretch for his side.
Given FIFA's transfer ban on the club, which—barring any successful appeal—will prevent the Spanish giants from signing a high-profile replacement for next season, the team's issues at the back look set to continue.
Atletico's Defence Has Been Too Strong for Barcelona
It spoke volumes of Atletico's defensive organisation that a team possessing Barcelona's passing skills was reduced to crosses to diminutive forwards and long-range attempts for much of Wednesday night.
Yet the home side's defensive success against Lionel Messi and co. hasn't been limited to just this Champions League tie in isolation. According to WhoScored, Los Rojiblancos have conceded just twice in their last five encounters with Barcelona, with Messi failing to get on the scoresheet against Atletico since a 4-1 victory in December 2012.
With Diego Godin and Joao Miranda anchoring the home side's back four on Wednesday, as well as the side's full-backs Filipe Luis and Juanfran remaining narrow at all times, the home team were once again able to nullify the potential threat posed around the box by Messi, Neymar and Cesc Fabregas.
Ahead of that back four, Tiago and Gabi also performed sterling roles in quelling the visitors' ability to weave through the centre of the pitch, relentlessly chasing and closing down the likes of Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta in midfield.
Barcelona's Positional Fluidity Is Declining
While it has been obvious for some time that this isn't the same Barcelona side that overawed countless opponents under Pep Guadiola, the team's fading fluidity is nonetheless worrisome.
Of course, the expected possession dominance is still ever-present, reflected by the team's stranglehold on the ball on Wednesday that saw Tata Martino's men control 71 percent of the possession. But the once-indomitable passing and positional fluidity isn't what it was.
Most notably, the speed and intricacy of the movement, as well as the seamless interchanging across the pitch, appear to be in decline under Martino.
Barcelona's work off the ball also appears to have dropped, particularly with regard to how the team organises itself when pressing opponents around the halfway line.
That was particularly evident in the success Atletico Madrid enjoyed when counter-attacking against the Catalans, as Javier Mascherano and Marc Bartra regularly found themselves scrambling to cover David Villa and Adrian when the home side caught Barcelona out of shape.
Atletico Will Need to Tinker Their Approach in the Semi-Finals
When playing Barcelona, it's inevitable that a team will spend considerable time without possession, given the nature of the Catalans' approach. But Diego Simeone will need to ensure his side employ a slightly altered method in the next round of the Champions League.
On Wednesday, Atletico impressively exposed Tata Martino's men with unbridled energy to physically overwhelm Barcelona in the early stages, before using carefully planned counter-attacks to pose a continued threat as the match wore on.
Of course, that's simplifying the brilliance of the three teams in question, and the German powerhouse has indeed adopted a more possession-oriented method this season under Pep Guardiola.
Yet it could prove more difficult for Atletico to cunningly lure their semi-final opponents upon them, given the propensity of Chelsea and Real Madrid, in particular, to score on the break themselves.
Thus, the Spanish outfit is less likely to see goalscoring opportunities arise from dispossessing their opponents around the halfway line in the way they did against Barcelona, which will force Atletico to push up and commit more players forward.
Wednesday's Result Will Undoubtedly Influence La Liga Title Race
The obvious conclusion to draw from Atletico's victory on Wednesday is that Diego Simeone's side now own the psychological edge over Barcelona in the race for the league title.
Indeed, given the manner of Los Colchoneros' capture of a Champions League semi-final berth, it's easy to imagine Atletico having the belief and strength of mind to hold off Barcelona and Real Madrid to secure their first La Liga triumph since 1996.
However, it's also possible that the team's ascension into Europe's final four could pose a distraction for an outfit with little recent experience at this stage of the continent's pre-eminent club competition.
Certainly, a possible semi-final matchup with their Madrid counterparts would represent a mouth-watering encounter, but such an occurrence could play into the hands of Barcelona, who will be without European commitments and have only the league to focus on.
Barcelona's Kingdom Appears to Be Cracking
There are, of course, a myriad of factors contributing to Barcelona's unease at present. Injury concerns, ageing stars and FIFA's imposition of a transfer ban have all combined to heighten the sense of vulnerability surrounding the famous club.
Yet it's when players begin to deviate so far from their team's identity on the field that the feeling of decline rapidly escalates.
Watching Barcelona whip in countless crosses to forwards well under 6' in height on Wednesday night, it was hard to shrug the thought that this famous side was beginning to lose faith in the system that has served them so well for the better part of a decade.
There was an apparent abandonment of the characteristic modus operandi; the team puzzlingly resorted to long balls, crosses and distant attempts as the team's situation grew more dire.
Have previous Champions League exits to a stubborn Chelsea and an explosive Bayern Munich hurt Barcelona's belief in their own methods on Europe's biggest stage?
It's hard to answer that definitively, but such an unusual performance has only served to hastily bring the feeling of Barcelona's decline forward.
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