Lionel Messi continues to be the star of the show for Barcelona as the footballer in the form of his life carries the Catalan club through a spectacular season
Cholo Simeone isn’t often guilty of being pessimistic – he often downplays his team’s chances in order to lure the opposition in, but he has never been as limp and languid as he was after Sunday’s game in Camp Nou. He knew his players had fought tooth and nail, pressed forward and competed…but Barça had Leo Messi.
“It used to happen when playing in the ‘barrio’, in the neighborhood. The one team with the best player usually wins. If Messi had worn our shirt, we would have won”, he stated.
Simeone’s lethargic approach to the game actually summarizes pretty well what LaLiga is like for all the teams who face Barcelona. It doesn’t matter how well you defend, how well you attack, how impressive your squad is: the little guy will always find the tiny peephole, the single weakness, and destroy you mercilessly.
‘No hay Liga’ indeed because Messi is focused of making short shrift of the competition. This time, a single, masterful free-kick was enough to make Atlético bend its knee in front of the king. 600 goals in 747 games isn’t just huge; most of them have been the key to unlocking tricky fixtures, such as the one against the Colchoneros. His season is uncanny and he’s totally focused on winning the Treble with his team…and the World Cup next summer.
Leaving Messi aside, the ecstatic preview of the game contrasts greatly with the calm inevitability of what’s coming up next. Nobody doubts LaLiga belongs to Barça, eight points in front of Atlético after the win, with Real Madrid and Valencia looking a bit better than a few months ago but still a huge points-gap away from the top flight.
However, Ernesto Valverde has more than a handful of problems to deal with over the next couple of weeks. Andrés Iniesta springs to mind immediately: the legendary midfielder was having an excellent run of games, but a hamstring injury forced him to call it a day against Atlético. A true kick in the nuts for the manager, who had already fine-tuned the team towards the late part of the season.
Valverde has also stumbled across an issue that he, as a coach, is unable to fully understand: the tremendous disdain and contempt the Camp Nou fans have shown towards poor André Gomes. On Sunday, the manager couldn’t believe the booing towards his own player.
It’s true that Gomes hasn’t been up to his Valencia form, but the harshness of the fans was met with Ernesto’s full support for the Portuguese midfielder: “fans should try to get on the nerves of the opposition players, not ours”, was his simple (and bold) statement after the game.
While Barça has intensified the talks with Brazilian player Arthur Melo towards his signing next season, the current players face two months where everything is set for a huge season final rush: second-leg game against Chelsea with the 1-1 from the game in Stamford Bridge (Messi was the one to level the game, of course), final LaLiga fixtures to secure the championship and the Copa del Rey final against Sevilla. Had anyone told fans last summer that this would be Barça’s status at this point, they would’ve been scoffed at.
Meanwhile, coming off last Sunday’s game, Simeone’s Atlético have a few problems themselves: after goalkeeper Miguel Ángel Moya’s departure to Real Sociedad, the Colchoneros are down to a first team squad of only 19 players. The final stretch of the season in LaLiga and UEFA Europa League awaits a team who, should anyone catch a cold, would have serious problems to come up with a proper match day squad. Cholo never liked easy challenges, right?