Holders Barcelona were knocked out of the Champions League after Antoine Griezmann scored twice to give Atlético Madrid a 2-0 victory at the Vicente Calderon and a 3-2 aggregate quarterfinal win. After last week’s bad-tempered first leg at the Camp Nou, when Fernando Torres both scored and was sent off before game-winner Luis Suárez escaped punishment for a kick out, this was another encounter packed with controversy sure to be the subject of heated discussion long after the final whistle.
Atlético had pounced to take a 36th minute lead, and crank up the volume yet further on an already fired up crowd, when Griezmann found himself free in the box and delightfully headed past Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Barcelona had come back from a goal down to beat Atlético in all three of the teams’ previous meetings this season, including in last week’s first leg at the Camp Nou. But this time they found the task of breaking down Atlético’s ferocious resistance a far tougher one, before a dramatic closing few minutes brought their hopes to a painful end.
First, with two minutes left on the clock, Atlético were awarded a penalty when Andres Iniesta clearly stuck out his hand in his own penalty box to prevent the ball from reaching a wide open Griezmann with a clear strike of goal. A penalty was duly awarded, but Atlético’s players, and manager Diego Simeone on the sidelines, were furious that Iniesta had not also been shown a red card.
Griezmann snuck home his penalty, but more controversy was soon to follow. As the match ticked into injury time, Atlético captain Gabi blocked an Iniesta cross with his arm a yard inside his own area, but Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli only awarded a free-kick right on the edge. When Lionel Messi curled his effort over the bar, Barcelona’s dream was ended and the Atlético fans celebrated the ball flying into the stands as if it were their team finding the back of the net.
Despite being regarded as one of the greatest teams in history, Barcelona have again discovered why no team have yet retained the European Cup in the Champions League era. Just two weeks ago few people will have bet against Barcelona winning an unprecedented back-to-back treble. But Luis Enrique’s side, who had been on a 39-match unbeaten streak, have hit a blip at just the wrong time.
Having taken just a single point from their last three La Liga matches to allow Atlético to close the gap on them to just three points, Barcelona will now be scrambling to prevent their season turning from potentially history-making into disaster.
After 15 months of sweeping all before them, Barcelona’s star men did not react well to losing their grip on the Champions League. Suárez had been lucky to escape a red card in the first leg when kicking out at Juanfran and was mighty fortunate again in the return leg. On this occasion, as time began to tick away in the second half, the Uruguayan, whose Barcelona career was delayed by a four-month ban for biting at the 2014 World Cup, swung an elbow into the eye of his compatriot Diego Godín. The impact on Godín's eyelid could be immediately seen and Atlético’s players were furious but Suárez escaped with just a yellow.
Just minutes later, Neymar was lucky to get away with the same punishment when kicking out at Juanfran after the ball had gone out of play. Atlético could feel aggrieved, particularly after Torres’ dismissal in the first leg, but Barcelona’s petulant reactions were testament to Atlético’s own success on the night.
The most prolific front trio in history, perhaps also being hampered by untimely fatigue, had barely a sniff at goal. The clearest chance falling the way of Suárez, who turned Godín but fired straight at goalkeeper Jan Oblak.
Meanwhile, Atlético scored twice and came inches away from another when Saul Niguez headed onto the crossbar early in the second half. Earlier, Niguez had provided a superb cross with the outside of his left foot to find Griezmann wide open in the middle of an exposed Barcelona defense and give his side a crucial lead to hang onto.
The goal came about thanks to Atlético’s shrewd pressing forcing a turnover from Jordi Alba. It was that pressing, at times stepping up high and at others dropping back to the halfway line, that frustrated Barcelona early on, preventing them from building out of the back.
Once again this was a brilliant case of Atlético Madrid overcoming more talented, highly regarded opponents by the shrewdness of Simeone’s tactics an the the willingness and ability of his players to carry them out to a tee. It was the same scenario in the quarterfinals two years ago, when Atlético similarly beat Barcelona at the Vicente Calderon seal a quarterfinal triumph.
That season they were only a minute away from winning a sensational La Liga and Champions League double. That achievement is alive once again, something that can no longer be said for Barcelona.