Lionel Messi scored three free-kicks in the past week, each just as good as the previous one. If the first one was a piece of improvisation, the second one was a bullet curled into the top corner. However, it was the third one against Atletico Madrid that defied expectations.
Despite knowing where the ball was going to end up, the entirety of Jan Oblak’s almost 6’3-frame couldn’t stop it. Neither could the Atletico wall where Diego Costa and Saul Niguez did their best to jump up and offer as big an obstacle as possible. Messi calmly curled the ball into the top left corner of the goal, Oblak’s outstretched arm unable to do more than touch the ball as it glided into the net.
That piece of inspiration from the little Argentine was what separated the top two teams in Spain as Barcelona got past Diego Simeone’s men to increase their lead at the top of the table to eight points. The Catalan side dominated possession in the first half, fashioning many half-chances, but nothing very clear cut to trouble the Rojiblancos. Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho toiled away the whole night, trying their best to help Messi as they attacked with vigour and energy.
The away side were merely passengers in the first half, unable to exert any influence going forward, as they mounted a focused rearguard action to keep out the Blaugrana. As the match wore on, they grew into the game, putting more pressure on the hosts as they tried their best to get the equaliser.
Costa put himself about while Koke and Saul tried their best to get the team going. Simeone made attacking substitutions in the second half, bringing on Angel Correa to inject some pace and width and Kevin Gameiro to provide more physicality up top. The changes did have the desired effect in that there was more urgency and intent going forward, but they lacked the end product and were not able to test the Barcelona defence much.
Although there was only one goal in the game, there were also two disallowed goals, both for offside. The first was when Suarez had the ball in the back of the net from a corner but was correctly given offside. The bigger twist in the tale was when Gameiro scored in the 86th minute but saw the goal disallowed because Costa, who won the initial header, was offside. Rather, his left arm was in an offside position, and the linesman did very well to spot that, ruling the goal out, correctly.
Despite not a lot of flashy attacking play on display from Los Cules, this isn’t a team that is built on great attacking play. This is a different Barcelona, one that has taken on the personality of their coach, Ernesto Valverde. Stoic resistance and solid in possession, the Catalan giants have been characterised by their solidity in midfield and defence and their ability to suddenly break and use Messi’s genius to carve open the opposition defence.
They did not put a foot wrong the whole game with Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti doing a great job stifling the duo of Antoine Griezmann and Costa. Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets kept things simple in midfield, allowing the forward thinking Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba to go forward in support of Messi, Suarez and Coutinho.
In what was touted as a match between two of La Liga’s most in-form men, Messi outshone Griezmann with ease, providing the decisive contribution that helped decide the tie. The Frenchman was off colour, unable to get into great positions, and was indecisive when in possession of the ball. Despite being linked with a move to Camp Nou, it remains to be seen if he could indeed add to the Barcelona attack if he joins.
The end of the game proved again that there was no league, that the title race was over, that Barcelona had, for all purposes, sealed the La Liga crown in the first season under Valverde. The coach himself said what he thought at the end of the game, saying, “It’s not definitive but we have taken a step.”
The difference once more, however, between three points and one, between potential defeat and a title-deciding win, was Lionel Messi, the man who has delivered time and again for the Camp Nou outfit. Effusive in his praise, Valverde acknowledged that he was the difference, saying, “There’s no one like him in the world. I don’t know what would have happened [if he’d been on the other team] nor do I want to imagine it.”
However, it was Simeone who captured the spirit of the moment poignantly, saying, “If Messi had been wearing an Atlético shirt, we would have won.” That is how good his goal was, that is how good he has been this season. Or the last 10 seasons. Barcelona are moving swiftly towards another league title and Messi is at the core of everything good associated with them, as always.