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Lionel Messi Ends ‘Crisis Week’ With Barcelona Win Over Atletico Madrid

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THE crisis may not yet be over in Catalonia but it was contained here. Barcelona beat Atlético Madrid for the first time in over a year, with a goal each for Neymar, Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi, who has stood silently in the middle of the storm during the last seven days. They have been waiting for him to calm their nerves and on the pitch he did. Messi gave away the penalty that put victory in doubt but then scored the third that ended this game. The fans had started the night chanting his name and they ended it that way too.

Tata Martino, the former Barcelona manager, used to call it the “weekly crisis” and after this victory there might be a temptation to borrow that line to describe this week in football and dressing-room politics. That would be a mistake but, if the president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, claimed that he had called elections to “lessen the tension”, the players did their part here, Messi especially. A week after the edifice broke, the rebuilding began and began early.

Luis Enrique said the result would “without doubt” reduce the tension surrounding the club. “Victories are the only thing that can calm this wave [of noise],” he said. “As soon as we make mistakes, the crisis will be back. That’s very clear. I will concentrate on what I can control.”

Barcelona had the lead after 11 minutes. Coming in from the right, Messi combined with Dani Alves and raced into the area, turning the ball inside towards Suárez on the edge of the six-yard box. Suárez could not control the ball but it came off his thigh and ran on to Neymar to slide it in at the far post. It may not have been the way they dreamed the Messi-Suárez-Neymar trio working but it hardly mattered: Barcelona had the lead and at least the link was working. Largely this season it has not.

Besides, better combinations followed and many of them. There was a pace and incision about Barcelona that was apparent almost from the start. Eleven minutes later the combination was almost perfect. Messi played the ball up the right for Suárez who turned swiftly inside José María Giménez, sprinted towards the area and then clipped up a wonderful ball to the far post for Neymar, only for the Brazilian’s header to bounce wide.

Suárez leapt in frustration: he had miscontrolled for Neymar’s first goal and a minute after that he had been unable to finish as he raced to reach a ball that momentarily slipped from the grasp of Miguel Ángel Moyà. With only one league goal this season and the sense that he is yet to find his place within this team, the pressure has been on Suárez. But then he got the second.

As the ball was swung right, Messi reacted quickly, controlling on his chest, or perhaps his upper arm, and bombing up the right, legs whirring. He cut inside and laid the ball into the path of Suárez for him to score. Luis Enrique punched the air and Messi turned to supporters and gestured for the noise level to rise. Which it did, of course. There was something cathartic about this.

There were complaints from Atlético and replays suggested there was some justification in them but there was also something familiar about the genesis of the goal. Messi had spent much of the half on the right; that may not be a long-term solution and surely he will end up closer to the false No9 position from which he became the world’s best player, but here it worked. He spent much of the half running at Jesús Gámez and the right-back, employed on the left for the first time, could do little to stop him.

Messi was hyperactive, as Barcelona were too, and the first half here may have been their best of the season. They were quick, dynamic and determined. Miguel Ángel Moyà had blocked one Messi shot at the near post, another faded wide and his header near the end of the half missed the target too. There were clashes too – Messi seemed to seek out one of them by way of retribution – and momentarily the game looked set to get nasty, reflecting in part Atlético’s inability to gain a foothold.

But then, suddenly, they did, 10 minutes into the second half. Again Messi and Gámez were involved but this time it was Atlético who benefited when, to the bafflement of Barcelona, Messi was judged to have clipped his ankle in the penalty area. Mario Mandzukic smashed in the penalty.

On came Fernando Torres who has scored eight times against Barcelona. There were nerves now. Mandzukic tried to release Torres racing into space but his pass did not make it. Arda Turan produced a wonderful piece of skill to flick the ball through Gerard Piqué’s legs. Torres’s cross was pushed away by Claudio Bravo and Raul García, also on as a sub, clipped his shot harmlessly into the keeper’s hands when hitting it hard might have been a better option.

Atlético were pressing but Barcelona broke. Suárez advanced on the left and struck a long ball across the field for Messi. He brought it down and laid it off to Ivan Rakitic, running beyond him. Although Messi could not reach the pull-back, the ball rebounded back to him to sidefoot in the third. “Messi! Messi! Messi!” the Camp Nou chanted. – The Guardian


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