Barcelona to clinch treble, says Diego Simeone after Atletico Madrid's Camp Nou defeat
La Liga leaders edge past doughty Atletico 2-0 even as manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer watches Manchester United's Uefa Champions League opponents win crucial game from stands
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his coaches flew in on a private jet to see top-of-the-table Barcelona against second-placed Atletico Madrid on Saturday night.
They sat five rows back in the Barcelona president’s box in the stadium where the Norwegian won the treble 20 years ago, smiling when asked for selfies by home fans. United’s next game is an Uefa Champions League last-eight, first-leg match at Old Trafford on Wednesday, a stage the Catalans have reached for a record 12 consecutive seasons – yet they have not progressed beyond the last eight since 2015.
With Real Madrid out of the competition, Barca aim to lift the trophy in Madrid in June. They are in excellent form and stretched their unbeaten league run to 19 games. Only Leganes and Real Betis have beaten Ernesto Valverde’s side in 31 league games.
Fans do not yet consider this a vintage side, but then they are comparing it to Pep Guardiola’s team which won all six trophies they entered in 2009 – including beating United in the Champions League final.
Barca are formidable. They have Lionel Messi, the in-form best player on the planet. They are almost untouched by injuries bar a doubt to the prodigiously talented Ousmane Dembele, but they took 85 minutes to break down the most stubborn and well organised team in football, Atletico.
The visitors, trailing by eight points with eight games to play, needed a victory if they were to stand any realistic chance of winning La Liga. Manager Diego Simeone has not beaten Barca in any of the 14 leagues games in which his side have faced them since 2012.
If his task was not already hard enough, losing Diego Costa to a straight red card after 28 minutes after serious dissent towards the referee made it more difficult. Three of his teammates were booked in a first half where Atletico did what Atletico do and tried to disrupt Barca’s imperious flow.
How else can they be expected to beat them?
Barca had been on top when Costa was sent off, with a Messi flick to Jordi Alba seeing the defender strike against the post. Philippe Coutinho, who has struggled this season, continues be played in the hope that he will come good. The Brazilian had a chance to score just before Costa was dismissed, but Barca could not create the same chances against 10 men.
Simeone was brave, too, bringing on Angel Correa and Alvaro Morata for the two full-backs Filipe Luis and Santiago Arias. Their formation was 4-2-1-2, yet it worked in frustrating and restricting Barca.
They had the redoutable goalkeeper Jan Oblak, saving from Luis Suarez after 62 minutes once Messi had run half the length of the pitch to set him up. Messi rode challenges to get a shot on goal himself a minute later, but Oblak was there to save time and again, as he also did from substitute Malcom.
Atleti remained a danger and when Antoine Griezmann, abused whenever he touched the ball by home fans stung at how they felt he messed Barca around last year, floated a free-kick towards the heads of his imperious central defenders Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez with 16 minutes to play, the nervousness in the crowd was palpable.
Atleti defended well, but they knew they needed a win and they took enough risks to go for it while Barca got frustrated, with their usually dominant and intelligent central defender Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet booked.
As Barca showed by the two Messi and Suarez goals after 89 minutes against Villarreal midweek which gave them a 4-4 draw, they are never finished. And so it proved in the 85th minute when Suarez let the ball cross his body before curling a low, hard, shot from outside the area into the only space that Oblak could have been beaten.
It was a magnificent strike for the Man of the Match.
“Atletico are one of the best teams in the world,” Suarez said. “And their goalkeeper was their Man of the Match, but we showed great attitude.”
Messi, who never stopped running at defenders, made it 2-0 a minute later, running onto an Ivan Rakitic ball and doing what his team had failed to do all night and bamboozling Gimenez and Godin before simply sliding the ball in along the floor into the corner. The goal meant he broke the all-time record for the most goals in Europe’s top divisions - with one more than Cristiano Ronaldo’s 414.
As the vast 95,000 Camp Nou crowd chanted about the imminent championship, an eighth in 11 seasons, Barca moved 11 clear of Atleti with seven to play. They can afford to concentrate on European competition now and even rest players for the game in Huesca between the two United matches.
“They are on the way to winning the three titles,” Simeone said of Barca’s league, cup and Champions League ambitions.
Solskjaer, who left before the end of the game to get back to his players in Manchester, has got much to think about how to stop that happening.
Updated: April 7, 2019 09:29 AM