Before the break, Barcelona’s Copa del Rey tie with Atleti was a dominant display capped off with a two-goal advantage.
The second half, conversely, was a reminder that you should never feel calm at half-time and always prepare for the last 45 minutes to test your nerves.
However, the blaugrana kept Diego Simeone’s resurgent side at bay and scraped out a 2-1 victory, with two important away goals in tow. And what goals they were; the efforts from Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi in the first half were excellent examples of why the two South Americans are leading the race for the pichichi.
After the disappointing result at the weekend (we won’t get into the goal-line controversy here, but…) the first leg of the CdR semifinal was a must win. The pre-match scenes at the Calderón suggested the mood was similar for the madrileños.
Barcelona fielded a lineup with six changes from the draw at Betis. Jasper Cillessen was in goal, with a back four of Jordi Alba, Samuel Umtiti, Gerard Piqué, and Sergi Roberto. Javier Mascherano, Ivan Rakitić, and André Gomes were in the midfield, joining a front three of Messi, Suárez, and Neymar.
Atleti’s lineup was likewise different from their scoreless draw with Alavés, making four changes. They started the match lined up with Miguel Ángel Moyá in goal, Šime Vrsaliko, Diego Godín, Stefan Savic, and Filipe Luis at the back. Juanfran, Gabi, and Saúl made up the midfield, and Koke, Yannick Carrasco, and Antoine Griezmann led the attack.
Barcelona dominated early in the game, with Luis Suárez scoring an absolute stunner of an individual goal right on the six-minute mark. Mascherano won a tackle that sent the ball towards the Uruguayan, who beat four defenders as he cut inside and shot past Moyá.
Luis Suarez is misunderstood genius from above who scores goals like this: pic.twitter.com/K673ctjs0L
— justin lew block (@JBlock49) February 1, 2017
Godín came close to balancing the scales only two minutes later, but his header from a corner went wide.
The back-and-forth remained mostly even for the next 25 minutes. Barcelona stayed solid defensively and looked for opportunities to set MSN loose on the counter.
After 32 minutes, the strategy paid off with a second goal. After one touch, Messi let loose a shot to the top left corner. He’s now scored 26 goals against Atlético, only one less than his career-high tally versus Sevilla.
Messi's favourite opponents:
— #MESSI600 (@MessiStats_) February 1, 2017
Luckily the two goals from Messi and Suárez were enough to secure a victory for the Catalan side, because Atleti would nearly push them to the brink in the second half. From the whistle, they were immediately faster and more aggressive on the attack, and it came close to fruition multiple times.
Fernando Torres came on at the break (what is with that guy versus Barça, anyways?) and almost combined with Gabi early on, if not for a last-ditch tackle from Jordi Alba.
A few moments later, Barcelona almost got a third away goal from the unlikeliest of sources: Javier Mascherano. The Argentine carried the ball for almost two thirds of the pitch to the Atleti area, but his shot on goal was weak and easily scooped up by Moyá. (How I’m living in a world where Donald Trump is the president but I’ve never seen a Masche goal is a true travesty).
— beIN SPORTS USA (@beINSPORTSUSA) February 1, 2017
The final 30 minutes of the game were tense, with the home side’s attack waking up quickly. Griezmann tied the match just before the 60th minute, tapping home a headed cross from Godín after a free kick found him in the area.
Moments later, he nearly had a second. If it weren’t for an excellent save by Cillessen, the hosts would have been level.
Messi came close again from a free kick, but Moyá managed to save it and Neymar’s rebound effort went soaring over the bar.
Atleti continued to push, with Diego Simeone looking even more stressed than I was.
Nonetheless, Barcelona will start the return leg at the Camp Nou with a clear advantage. Even a draw with two away goals wouldn’t have been a terrible result, and a victory is all the better. With La Liga looking like a tougher challenge each week, a solid shot at a CDR final is welcome news.
Now Luis Enrique’s side looks to Saturday’s Liga crash with Athletic Bilbao.