Atlético Madrid and Barcelona draw to give Real advantage in La Liga title race
It was billed as the match that would decide the title but nothing is decided yet and the team that won it was the one that didn’t play. There were 15 seconds left when Lionel Messi bent a free-kick around Jan Oblak’s post, the last opportunity gone for either side, a 0-0 draw at the Camp Nou keeping Atlético Madrid top of the table and moving Barcelona second but leaving Real Madrid as the only team with their destiny in their own hands.
Atlético are top with 77 points and Barcelona have 75. Real Madrid and Sevilla, who face each other on Sunday night, have 74 and 70 respectively. It could have been worse, and perhaps that told, but at the final whistle here there was disappointment. Both sides could have taken this and could still take the league title, the best chances falling to Felipe for Atlético and Ousmane Dembélé for Barcelona, and yet it fit this season somehow that ultimately no one could take that final step.
The first steps had been taken by the visitors, and while the draw hurts Atlético least, a win would have taken them closest. That appeared confirmed in the way that almost from the start Koke urged his teammates to take a step forward to play on the front foot and, although they soon lost Thomas Lemar, who had fired off the first shot, slowly they took a degree of control. Yannick Carrasco was quick to run up the left, Mario Hermoso stepping out behind him. On the other side, Marcos Llorente and Kieran Trippier built, Atlético beginning to open up Barcelona.
On the phone in the stands, Ronald Koeman saw Sergio Busquets depart, concern growing. Clément Lenglet had to be quick, diving at the feet of Ángel Correa to deflect wide as he raced in and tried to reach Hermoso’s cutback. Not long after, Lenglet was grateful to get away with a loss of possession that momentarily had Koke leading a three-man charge through the middle.
Atlético were accelerating now. Hermoso released Carrasco on the left and he pulled the ball back. Steaming in, the opportunity opening, Llorente slightly scuffed his shot, allowing Marc-André ter Stegen to save. Within 60 seconds, he blocked Luis Suárez at the near post. And then, barely a minute later, he saved from Carrasco before leaping to his feet to push the ball off Suárez’s head.
And then, suddenly, Messi was away. Turning on the halfway line, he surged past Saúl Ñíguez, cut inside between Koke and Hermoso, escaped Llorente, got away from Felipe and got off a shot that Oblak just managed to tip past the post. If that was a reminder of the danger, Atlético weren’t cowed. Carrasco skipped away from Óscar Mingueza and into the area where his shot was blocked by Gerard Piqué; Llorente’s pull-back for Suárez was cut out; and Felipe somehow lifted a shot from by the penalty spot well over.
The second half began without Mingueza – replaced by Ronald Araújo – and with Suárez striking a bouncing ball past the post. From a corner won by Correa and only part cleared by Ter Stegen, Carrasco’s shot was blocked, Atlético enjoying significant possession.
The ball rarely moved fast, even when Barcelona took it back again, which they began to; Jordi Alba creating a chance for Ilaix Moriba to strike wide and Messi clipping into the run of Piqué, whose header was saved by Oblak. Koke then pulled back Messi as he escaped and set off towards the area. It was symptomatic that this was Atlético’s third yellow card, all for fouls on the same man. From the free-kick, Oblak dived to push it past the post.
Both sides then had the ball in the net within a minute of each other but neither counted. The flag was up when Araújo headed in Pedri’s floated ball and Carrasco had been penalised for a foul on Piqué when he ran clean through the middle, Suárez smashing the loose ball home for no reward. Twenty minutes remained, time slipping away and the title with it, especially for Barcelona.
Dembélé was introduced, immediately running at Carrasco. The best chance came his way too, with five minutes left. Sprinting in at the far post, he leapt to meet Alba’s cross but headed over the bar. A minute later, at the other end, Carrasco pulled the ball back to make a final opportunity for Atlético. Suárez, though, missed the ball, while Atlético and Barcelona missed their opportunity, Messi’s final free-kick floating past the post.