The Catalans got the job done without the Uruguayan, thanks to solid defending and a mesmerizing goal from Lionel Messi
Barcelona faced a difficult challenge on Sunday evening: they had to enter the Vicente Calderón without Luis Suárez and needed a win to become champions. The Catalans, however, got the job done without the Uruguayan, thanks to solid defending and a mesmerizing goal from Lionel Messi.
In the early minutes Messi played wide on the right and Pedro occupied Luis Suárez’s central position. As the game went on, however, and Atlético got a good spell of possession in the first ten minutes, Messi started to roam towards the central areas more. Interestingly enough, Pedro rarely played wide right even when Messi was in the center: the Spaniard’s role was to move up front, sometimes drop a bit deeper to connect with Alves or Rakitic, but always to keep the center backs busy.
Pedro filled Suárez’s shoes well. Some will argue that he wasn’t as sharp as Suárez might have been, or that he failed to wreck havoc like the Uruguayan. That, however, is not Pedro’s game to begin with. His most important task was to create spaces for his attacking partners Messi and Neymar, and he did it well: Messi had two good shooting chances in the first half, both from the edge of the box, in addition to two headers that threatened Atletico keeper Oblak.
With Neymar cutting inside from the left, Barcelona managed to create plenty of danger even without Suárez. But replacing the Uruguayan in the defensive end was also important: Suárez is a crucial part of Barcelona’s set-piece defense as he usually deals with deliveries to the near post. Knowing Atlético’s strength in set-piece situations, it was Neymar who dropped back to fill Suárez’s shoes at the near post. Usually the Brazilian stays forward and waits for the ball to be won back to launch a counter-attack, but this time he had to sacrifice a bit of his game for the good of the team. The set-piece defense, in general, worked well: Atlético only threatened Claudio Bravo once.
Defending in open play, Gerard Piqué was once more imperial, steering the defense line and never letting attackers run behind him. His understanding with center back partner Javier Mascherano has been one of the cornerstones of Barcelona’s success: they not only read the opponents well, but also know each other well enough to know where to position themselves at each moment. When Mascherano goes for an interception higher up the field, Piqué is always in the right spot protecting the space the Argentine leaves behind.
The winning goal, fittingly enough, came via Messi in the second half. The Argentine combined with Pedro – who did well to find his teammate – and slalomed through the Atlético defense before placing the ball in the far corner. It was a goal that – in theory – should never have happened: Atlético didn’t really make a defensive mistake; they didn’t really give Messi space either. But Messi didn’t need the space to decide the match: he received a perfect pass from Pedro and the rest was magic; beyond comprehension.
After Messi’s goal, Neymar missed a great chance to make it 0-2, but the Catalans managed to keep the match in control and Atlético were struggling to create any danger. Barcelona’s only problems came when Atlético pressed intensely, but even then, Luis Enrique’s side managed to escape the pressing by using Neymar and Messi as outlets. It’s certainly one of the aspects that has improved over the course of the season, among many other things. And perhaps it was just that – the physical, mental and tactical growth – that gave Barcelona the well-deserved Liga title.