Barcelona took a major step toward securing the 2015-16 La Liga title on Saturday, beating Atletico Madrid 2-1 at the Camp Nou.
The visitors took the lead through Koke and appeared to be in control, but Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez turned the situation around for the Catalans in the first half. Filipe Luis was sent off for a horror tackle just before half-time, and Diego Godin joined him for an early shower after the break.
The win sees Barcelona take sole possession of the top spot in the standings, and the defending champions still hold a match in hand.
As shared by Barcelona's official Twitter account, there were few surprises in the hosts' starting XI, as manager Luis Enrique sent out a very strong squad, including the vaunted attacking trio of Messi, Suarez and Neymar:
FC Barcelona @FCBarcelona
Barça XI: 13.Bravo 3.Piqué 4.Rakitic 5.Sergio 6.Alves 8.Iniesta 9.Suárez 10.Messi 11.Neymar Jr 14.Mascherano 18.Jordi Alba #FCBAtleti1/30/2016, 1:39:38 PM
Atletico manager Diego Simeone took a small risk by starting Belgian winger Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, the young speedster who has been a major influence off the bench this season.
It took the visitors just two minutes to create their first chance, and Barcelona goalkeeper Claudio Bravo immediately had to intervene to deny a stinging drive from Saul Niguez.
The tempo of the match dropped after the frantic opening minutes, and Barcelona took a little more control of the ball, but Atletico still looked dangerous. On their first real counter, Saul easily got past Jordi Alba and fired in a cross, which Koke pushed past a helpless Bravo to give the team the lead after just 10 minutes.
Per ESPN Stats & Info, the early lead was a good sign for Atletico, whose defence had been getting the job done of late:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Atlético Madrid: 5 straight La Liga shutouts, leads Barcelona 1-0 in first half. Follow here: https://t.co/Cuze7BG5jB1/30/2016, 3:17:04 PM
Atletico were in full control and pushed for a second goal, with Augusto Fernandez firing a shot just wide of the post. But star centre-back Godin suffered a slight knock, and while the visitors still looked threatening, Barcelona gradually started to grow into the match.
Two quick yellow cards for Godin and Gabi seemed to halt Atletico's momentum, and the Catalans pounced. First, Suarez forced Atleti goalkeeper Jan Oblak into a fine save from a tight angle, before Messi equalised after a fantastic passing display from the hosts.
Neymar eventually isolated Alba out wide, and the full-back waited just long enough to let Messi run toward the near post before playing him in.
The Daily Mirror's Ed Malyon was impressed:
Ed Malyon @eaamalyon
GOAL MESSI! What a brilliant move by Barca and we're level at the Camp Nou1/30/2016, 3:31:21 PM
Antoine Griezmann didn't enjoy his finest outing on Saturday, and he should have given Atletico the lead again after some fine work from Ferreira Carrasco but instead blasted a wild shot over.
Minutes later, Dani Alves lofted a beautiful ball into the path of Suarez, who used his strength to fight off Jose Gimenez before firing a finish through Oblak's legs.
The turnaround was almost complete, and the last bit of momentum Atletico had was truly gone when Luis got himself sent off for a horror tackle on Messi just before half-time. Planting his studs near the Argentina international's knees, the red card was the only logical result, per Malyon:
Ed Malyon @eaamalyon
Red card for Filipe Luis. Studs-up on Messi's knee - the sort of tackle you expect from a Brazilian on an Argentine. Diabolical challenge1/30/2016, 3:46:26 PM
Unsurprisingly, the Blaugrana took control of the ball in the second half, looking to exploit their man-advantage. Atletico tried their best to find an equaliser, with Ferreira Carrasco looking brightest, but Barcelona remained in full control as they looked for another goal of their own.
Gerard Pique did well to deny Ferreira Carrasco after he had surged past two defenders, and Bravo produced a stunning reflex save when the Belgian picked out Griezmann inside the box.
But just as momentum appeared to be shifting, Atletico ruined their chances with another poor challenge. This time, it was the experienced Godin who brought down Suarez, to the shock of La Liga blogger Rafael Hernandez:
Rafael Hernández @RafaelH117
Godin sent off. Hard to believe such an experienced player like him fell for it, Suárez wanted for the foul.1/30/2016, 4:24:18 PM
The second dismissal effectively killed the match, allowing Barcelona to slow down play and grab the win. Chances were few toward the end of the match, although Messi came close with a curling shot.
Barcelona's strong passing game finally seemed to take its toll on the nine remaining Atletico players in the final 10 minutes, as their tired legs could no longer close the gaps. The Blaugrana were happy to just play out the match and take three vital points, although Atletico had one final chance, with Koke's cross causing some confusion inside the Catalan box.
The win sees Barcelona take a three-point lead at the top of the standings with a match in hand, and from this point forward, the Catalans will control their own fate. Atletico will have to bounce back quickly, and Diego Simeone's men will now have to face high-flying Eibar without Godin and Luis in Week 23.
Barcelona manager Enrique thought the opening goal woke his team up, but he wasn't happy the Catalans failed to put Atletico away late, per the AS English Twitter feed:
AS English @English_AS
Luis Enrique: "The early goal shook us, but woke us up too, we went ahead but couldn't kill it off, the game was open right to the end..."1/30/2016, 5:22:21 PM
His colleague Simeone refused to discuss the official:
AS English @English_AS
Simeone: "The referee? No opinion, you can all give yours, he interpreted it the way he interpreted it..."1/30/2016, 5:13:33 PM
He added, "I've nothing to blame Filipe or Godin for," making it very clear he believed both dismissals were harsh.
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