FC Barcelona has had no answer for Spanish rivals Atletico Madrid this season — and that is likely because Atletico seems to have found the answer to Lionel Messi.
The Argentine superstar has not found the back of the net the last six Barcelona meetings with upstart Atletico, who not only bounced the Blaugrana from the Champions League at the quarterfinal stage, but also lead the Spanish domestic league by a point over Barcelona and three points over crosstown rival Real Madrid.
Atletico defeated Barcelona 1-0 Wednesday at Estadio Vicente Calderon, taking the two-leg quarterfinal tie 2-1 on aggregate. Now the Champions League semifinal will be missing a Barcelona entry for the first time since 2007 as the Catalan powerhouse failed in its attempt at a record seventh straight semifinal appearance.
Though Bareclona are still in a good position to overtake Atletico with six games left on the La Liga schedule, the 2013/14 season has been considered a disappointment. But for Atletico Madrid, which usually finds itself in the shadow of the wealthy and glamorous club with which it shares the city, the season has already been a triumph.
The two sides had struggled to a stalemate in four previous meetings this season, but when Atletico finally defeated Barcelona, they made it count advancing to the final four of the premier European tournament for the first time in 40 years.
A fifth-minute header by Koke proved the decider, as Barcelona never found an equalizer.
Messi had the only two decent chances for Barcelona, both coming in the first half, but his effort was largely listless.
Strangely, Barcelona manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino said that Messi’s subdued performance in the biggest match of the Barcelona season came by design.
“Today we didn’t want Messi to engage much in the game,” Martino claimed, explaining a bizarre tactical decision that will certainly be debated by Barca fans and football experts at least until Barcelona next reach the Champions League semifinals. “We wanted him to face his marker one-on-one on the right wing. He didn’t participate much, but had a couple of clear chances.”
The Spanish media pointed out that the total ground covered by Messi in the match amounted to a conservative 6.8 kilometers — or 4.2 miles — which exceeded the distance covered by Barcelona goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto by just 1.5 kilometers, or just under one mile.
Atletico Madrid Manager Diego Simeone acknowledged that Barcelona has the more talented squad — but sometimes talent is not the deciding factor in football.
“Sometimes in history, it’s not the best side that wins,” he said, “but the one that’s more convinced of what it has to do.”
Though the Champions League exit is a bitter disappointment for Barcelona, the club’s season is far from over. In addition to remaining in position to take the La Liga crown, one week from Wednesday Barcelona faces arch-rival Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey final, with a shot at another piece of coveted silverware.