x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Barca will get over their first defeat

Lacking key components, it was heartache for Barca on Valentine's Day, but like all heartache, they will no doubt get over it.

The omens were not good for unbeaten Barcelona. Missing most of their regular defenders, they travelled to play inconsistent Atletico Madrid, whose 55,000 capacity Vicente Calderon was a cauldron of anti-Catalan sentiment and chants of "Viva Espana!" Barca had lost in three of their last four visits to the south side of Madrid and only won once in seven. When Pep Guardiola, their coach, correctly insisted that Atletico were favourites, few believed him. Brilliant Barca, people thought, were indomitable even with injuries.

Barca's defence featured Maxwell at left back - starting his second game in succession for the first time in his Camp Nou career. Gabi Milito was alongside him at centre-half, the injury-prone Argentine starting only his second game in two years. Alongside him was Carles Puyol, the captain and the only recognised defender from this season, hoping to steady a back line which featured young left winger, Jeffren, playing at right-back.

Life got much tougher for Barca three minutes into the game when Seydou Keita, their key midfielder, pulled up with a hamstring problem. They were forced to shuffle their pack again, but the fragilities were exposed after just eight minutes when in-form Jose Antonio Reyes sliced past three players to set up Diego Forlan. The Uruguayan seldom misses when gifted a one-on-one position. Such has been Barca's form this season, it was the first time they have been behind in any league game.

The Catalans were two down after 22 minutes, when Simao struck a sublime free-kick around the Barca wall. I interviewed the Portuguese winger recently and had always been suspicious of him because of his cocky demeanour. Craig Bellamy invokes the same feeling. You just take to some players and not to others but I could not have been more wrong. Simao, who was so close to signing for Liverpool in 2007 that flights had been booked, was bright, cogent, witty and understood English perfectly.

Barca were stung and uncharacteristically struggling, but they quickly rallied and Zlatan Ibrahimovic pulled one back four minutes later, the Swede volleying home his first goal in two months after Puyol had headed a corner into his path. Three goals inside the first half hour saw people expecting the blizzard that has been commonplace in previous fixtures between these two clubs. It was not to be. Atletico's defence played with a discipline seldom seen, while their 19-year-old goalkeeper David Gea was outstanding. Thierry Henry may have been on the Barca bench, but defence was Barca's problem and he sat alongside relative unknown youngsters like Jonathan dos Santos and the two Marcs - Muniesa and Bartra.

With their finely honed system lacking key components, Barca struggled to circulate the ball and dominate the game against an Atleti side brimming with pace and counter-attacking flair. Guardiola was graceful in defeat, his Atleti equivalent Quique Sanchez Flores ecstatic after becoming the first team to beat Barca in the league this season. Their lead has been cut to two points over Real Madrid and the title race intensified, with the pair set to meet at the Bernabeu in April when Guardiola will hope to have more regular defenders at their disposal.

"The first defeat - but we're still leaders," said the headline on the Catalan daily Sport. "Atletico do Madrid a favour" said the capital-based Marca. It was heartache for Barca on Valentine's Day, but like all heartache, they will no doubt get over it. But with Real pursuing the same trophies, there is no margin for error. @Email:sports@thenational.ae