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 draw. We played two good games and had our chances in both legs but it slipped through our fingers.”
Having already lost playmaker Arda Turan to a groin problem, there was more bad news for Atletico before kickoff when top scorer Diego Costa, who strained a thigh muscle in the first leg, failed to make the squad. Barca seemed to be settling into their usual dominant rhythm in the opening minutes on a warm night in the Spanish capital but were rocked back when Costa’s replacement Adrian burst clear in the fifth minute in a typical Atletico counter-attack. His initial shot cannoned off the crossbar and when Villa clipped the ball back into the middle he nodded it across goal for Koke to volley in at the far post. Atletico had the bit between their teeth and Barca suddenly went to pieces as Villa was twice allowed space in the area and twice saw his shots come back off the frame of the goal.
The game settled down after the frantic opening 20 minutes and Barca had a good chance to equalise when Messi, who had earlier headed narrowly wide, missed the target after brilliant work from Neymar on the left. Barca, who had played Atletico four times this season with all four games ending in draws, began the second half strongly and immediately had Atletico on the back foot.
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois saved brilliantly at Neymar’s feet in the 49th minute and Atletico somehow scrambled the ball away when it seemed easier for Xavi to score. Xavi should have done better with a free header from a Daniel Alves cross on the hour, while five minutes later at the other end substitute Diego tested Jose Manuel Pinto with an angled strike.
Well begun comes undone for Man Utd
London: For two minutes after Patrice Evra’s spectacular goal at the Allianz Arena on Wednesday, Manchester United fans were allowed to dream that their Champions League campaign would not end in a tame quarterfinal exit at the hands of holders Bayern Munich.
Bayern’s response, though, was typically ruthless, hitting back instantly and then delivered two more killer blows which had United out for the count – 3-1 on the night, 4-2 on aggregate – long before the final whistle.
While the German champions once again showed menacing consistency in grinding down their rivals even under the greatest pressure, United’s collapse after the Frenchman’s thunderbolt illustrated all their weaknesses in their first season under David Moyes.
The Scot’s gamble on Wayne Rooney and his injured toe backfired with the England striker a pale shadow of his usual self. Javier Hernandez, who had scoring two goals in United’s last two games, was introduced only as a late substitute.
But any lineup or formation at the disposal of Moyes would probably have been insufficient to match Bayern’s tactical and technical prowess, which left United’s midfield chasing shadows and the back four defending with last-gasp tackles and blocks.
With next term’s Champions League football almost certainly out of United’s reach, the focus at Old Trafford in the last few weeks of the season will be on the big decisions set to be made when it finally comes to an end.
Under fire from some of the fans and looking largely uncomfortable, Moyes is still likely to be given more time to settle in the uncharted territory of steering a club with the highest ambitions.
Whether he will be given a massive war-chest to spend on whatever transfer targets he picks is another matter.
The club has already dished out a total of around 65 million pounds ($108.86 million) on misfit Marouane Fellaini and Chelsea reject Juan Mata, who was ineligible for United in the Champions league this season after his January move from Stamford Bridge.
Mata may yet turn out to be an asset but if the outgoing English champions are to avoid a long-term fall from grace, Moyes will quickly have to develop the instinct of getting the best value for money out of his purchases.
He will not need reminding of the kind of business his predecessor Alex Ferguson did down the years with the likes of Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo.
United’s declining squad leaves very little room for error in the transfer market and, having endured a baptism of fire in his maiden season, Moyes knows a return to Champions League football for 2015 is likely to be the bare minimum goal. Evra’s moment of magic at the Allianz Arena turned out to be just another false start under Moyes, producing only a brief moment of the gloss United enjoyed so consistently with Ferguson at the helm.
The 72-year-old Glaswegian for his part, can only hope that he the man he hand-picked enjoys a rapid change of fortune at a level as unforgiving as it is still unfamiliar.