By: Iain Rogers
Atletico Madrid tamed Lionel Messi and Neymar to send La Liga rivals Barcelona crashing out of the Champions League after Koke’s early goal secured a shock 2-1 aggregate success at the Calderon on Wednesday. After last week’s quarter-final, first leg in Barcelona ended 1-1, Atletico’s stunning 1-0 victory at an electric Calderon stadium was the latest twist in a fairytale season for Madrid’s second club and their inspirational coach and former player Diego Simeone.
Simeone’s fired-up troops blew Barca away in the opening 20 minutes and after midfielder Koke volleyed in from close range in the fifth minute former Barca forward David Villa twice rattled the crossbar. After surviving the early barrage, Barca showed more intensity and had their chances in the second half as the home side wilted.
But with Simeone willing them on from his technical area and whipping up the delirious fans in the stands, Atletico held out to deny Barca a record-extending seventh consecutive appearance in the last four and claim a berth in the last four of Europe’s elite club competition for the first time in 40 years.
“The work of the team across both legs has been spectacular,” Koke told Spanish TV broadcaster Canal Plus.
“We ran a huge amount, we played the two games in the way we wanted and I think we were the deserved winners,” added the Spain international. “With these fans behind us it is very hard for us to lose a match here.”
Eliminating the Catalan giants, whose annual earnings of more than 500 million euros are almost five times those of their Madrid rivals, was an incredible achievement and they join neighbours Real Madrid, Chelsea and holders Bayern Munich in Friday’s draw for the last four.
They can twist the knife deeper by holding on to their narrow lead over second-placed Barca in La Liga and preventing them securing them a fifth domestic league title in six years. They are a point clear with six games left and closing in on a first la Liga triumph since a team featuring Simeone as a combative midfielder won the title in 1996. Barca, whose talisman Lionel Messi barely featured on a stage where he has so often excelled, were left wondering how they failed to turn their second-half dominance into at least the one goal that would have taken the game to extra time.
“We had the game within our grasp,” Barca midfielder Xavi told Canal Plus. “We had four or five very clear chances that normally we would put away. They made the most of those first 15 to 20 minutes when they played with a lot of intensity and scored the goal. After that we stepped up to the challenge and deserved at least a continued…