For some, Saturday’s showdown was anticlimactic, the anticipation leading into the Atlético Madrid-Barcelona showdown failing to translate into the 0-0 final. With both teams dropping points for only the third time, nothing changed at the top of the Primera División, even if Real Madrid was able to gain two points with their Sunday win at Espanyol. For the third time this season, Atlético and Barça were deadlocked after 90 minutes, slightly increasing the likelihood only goal difference the teams after 38 rounds.
At La Liga’s half-way mark — after a match that was supposed to identify Spain’s favorites — we still haven’t learned which team is better than the other. Saturday’s stalemate did, however, reveal a number of other, smaller things about the Primera’s title race:
1. 270 wasn’t enough – 1-1, 0-0, 0-0. Not only have these teams produced three draws in their 2013-14 meetings (the first two in August’s Spanish Supercopa), but neither side has scored in 204 minutes. At what point do we throw our hands up and say “these teams are equal,” acknowledging any potential goals represent the variance, not a true difference in quality?
We probably aren’t there yet, but if you saw a meaningful difference in Atlético and Barcelona on Saturday, you’re either a.) a fan of one of those teams, or b.) somebody I could really learn something from, because three matches into these teams’ 2013-14 series, there’s no way to tell who’s better.
2. Missed chance for Atleti – Even if you think these teams are equal, you can argue Atlético should have done more at home. Being drawn by Barcelona could be seen as dropping points the Blaugrana are likely to build on at home on May 17.
Diego Simeone, however, didn’t seem to agree. At least, judging by his approach, he was fine playing out Saturday’s game to its logical conclusion. Like his counterpart (Gerardo Martino), he never had his team deviate from its game plan, either confident in its ability to break through or unwilling to risk a failure that could give their opponents two more valuable points.
With 19 matches left in the season, with every point so valuable between two teams that will push 100 points this season, that may not have been a risk either coach was willing to take. Whether Simeone comes to regret that will be determined in Catalonia.
3. Another lesson on possession – Barcelona had 69 percent of the ball. They controlled the game, right? No. Atlético’s work and pressure were just as important to how the game played out. Both teams finished with two shots on goal. Neither team looked close to taking the game from the other. Possession was incidental to the result.
4. Set pieces should have meant more for Atlético – Defending set pieces, Barcelona really only have one person capable of marking a significant opposing threat. Sergio Busquets and Dani Alves can try, but it’s Gerard Piqué little else until Carles Puyol returns.
Atlético, on the other hand, have six players within two centimeters of six feet tall, and on Saturday, they won seven corners and three free kicks in the Barcelona half. Yet come full-time, they’d failed to capitalize on any of them, giving those claiming Atlético should have done some fodder.
5. Gerard Piqué reminded people of his value – Even the world’s best defenders have their detractors. It’s too easy to watch a player on a bad day, see a couple of mistakes, and pass judgment. To a certain degree, that’s the nature of defending, but over the past two years, Gerard Piqué (right) seems to have accumulated more detractors than most. Having to carry the defense in the absences of Carles Puyol, the Spanish international has occasionally faltered.
Saturday was not one of those times. Often isolated on Diego Costa, Piqué was the main reason one of Spain’s leading goal scorers was kept quiet. As best seen on the first half ball that forced Piqué to track Costa into the right channel, Barcelona’s center half seemed a step ahead of his marks, quick to read plays and beat his opponents spots while helping keep flack off Víctor Valdés.
On that play (and on a similar read to his right in the second half), Piqué’s positioning left Costa with a series of low percentage options, both times preventing a shot from testing his keeper.
6. Javier Mascherano continues to be a gamble – This:[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtLPHi8T63E]
Let’s set aside the debate as to whether that could have been red, yellow, or nothing (it wasn’t a booking on Saturday). Why does Javier Mascherano continue to put himself in positions to turn games … in a bad way?
Two-footed, going straight into his man, the only thing that saved Mascherano on that play was Arda Turan being so close at the time he committed. Even then, the foul could have seriously hurt the Atlético midfielder, had Mascherano made contact. Once the Barça defender’s feet go out from under him, he loses all influence over whether that contact happens or not.
To paraphrase Charlie Murphy, Mascherano continues to be a habitual dice-roller. Often, you get a quality player who provides a midfielder’s skills in defense. Sometimes, and more often than most players, he takes unjustifiable chances.
Another official may have had Barça playing with 10 for Saturday’s final half-hour.
7. Barcelona is more than Messi, Neymar – When neither Lionel Messi nor Neymar started against Getafe mid-week, it seemed a long shot they’d go 90 against Atlético. Yet given the stakes, many wondered if Tata Martino would still take a chance. When Barça’s South America duo started the game on the bench, people both understood and respected the other gamble he was taking – keeping his best attackers on the bench.
The 0-0 scoreline gives cynics reason to criticize the move, but the silver lining speaks to the quality of Messi and Neymar’s teammates. On the road, against one of the best teams in Europe, and without their two most-talented attackers, the Blaugrana were still able to get a result, one that keeps them at the top of the table. And while this two may have been able to snag additional points for Barcelona, Martino was able to respect their recoveries while keeping his team in first.
8. Atleti better get scoring goals – If Saturday was an indication Barcelona and Atlético may finish this season tied on top, Diego Simeone’s team needs to start scoring goals. They’re five back on goal difference, the likely tiebreaker (if the teams end up even). If Atlético going to claim their unlikely crown, they may need to out-score their more-prolific opposition.
To date, Atleti have allowed 11 goals this season. Barcelona’s allowed 12. Even if Atlético try to make up the five-goal difference by conceding less, there isn’t much room for improvement in that column.
Odds are to catch Barcelona, they’re going to have to be a little more like Barcelona. Barça have scored 53 times so far this year. Atlético (47) need to catch up.
9. Real Madrid was the ‘real winner’ – The instant, post-match analysis was unanimous: Real Madrid were the real winners on Saturday, even if they didn’t play until Sunday. Once they beat Espanyol, however, los Blancos were back within three points of this season’s big two. According to the standings, we have a three-team race.
At the same time, we can’t ignore what we saw from Real Madrid. Failing to score from open play against the league’s 12th-placed team, El Real are still playing like the Spain’s third-best team, and with Luka Modric and Xabi Alonso holding down the middle, it’s not difficult to imagine where Spain’s leaders will be able to given the Merengues problems.
By the math, Real Madrid did “win” this weekend, but seeing how Spain’s top-three performed, there was no change in the power dynamics at the top of the table. La Liga still has two main contenders for the title, with a sleeping giant given extra time to show they can make this a three-team race.
- Granada 4, Valladolid 0 – Two goals from Recio left Valladolid in the bottom three come at the end of the weekend, with goals from Jeison Murillo and Youssef El-Arabi piling on to drive Lucas Alcaraz’s team 10th.
- Athletic Bilbao 6, Almeria 1 – Bouncing back from last week’s loss to Real Sociedad, Athletic got two goals from Ibai Gómez after Mikei Rico, Ander Herrera, Aymeric Laporte, and Artiz Aduriz had already put the game out of reach.
- Celta Vigo 2, Valencia 1 – A second half brace from Charles reversed Daniel Parejo’s opening goal, ending Celta’s three-match winless run.
- Elche 1, Sevilla 1 – Christian Herrera’s 82nd minute goal seemed to give Elche its upset, but one minute before full-time, Daniel Carriço equalized, carrying Sevilla’s unbeaten run to seven in league.
- Getafe 0, Real Vallecano 1 – Alberto Bueno’s 29th minute goal held up as Rubén Martínez’s five saves helped keep Getafe off the scoresheet.
- Real Betis 1, Osasuna 2 – Nono’s second booking left Real Betis down a man and a goal in the 38th minute. A second half own goal from Jordi Figueras put the game away before Jorge Molina got the home side on the board late.
- Levante 1, Málaga 0 – Bernd Schuster’s team spent 71 minutes chasing David Berral’s opener, putting up 22 shots along the way. Six saves from Keylor Navas, however, delivered Levante’s sixth win of the season, Málaga now losers of two in a row.
Atlético Madrid 0, Barcelona 0
Espanyol 0, Real Madrid 1