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Barça edge feisty encounter to move clear at top of table

Leo Messi and Luis Suárez were both on target in a 2-1 victory at Camp Nou while Diego Simeone's Atlético ended the match with just nine players.

Luis Suárez celebrates scoring the winning goal in Camp Nou.

Speaking ahead of his side’s trip to Camp Nou on Saturday, Atlético Madrid manager Diego Simeone noted: “Their frontline trio are top quality, so we’ll need to be fully focused and on our toes for the full 90 minutes.” The home side’s eventual 2-1 victory was as much down to studs as other body parts as the visitors were reduced to nine men over the course of 65 minutes in a match that showcased the qualities and deficiencies of Simeone’s side while affirming Barcelona’s place as favourites for the Liga title.

Barcelona have been in irresistible form since the turn of the year, winning eight consecutive matches after a 0-0 draw against Espanyol on the basis of the brilliance of Enrique's front three. Leo Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez have bagged 45 league goals between them since the start of the season -- and Messi missed almost two months through injury -- leaving Simeone with quite the conundrum: how to stop a seemingly unstoppable force. If any team could prevent the fearsome trident from finding the back of the net it is Atlético, who had conceded just eight times in 21 games before Saturday's trip to Camp Nou. Two of those were scored by Barça in week three of the season in a 2-1 victory in the Calderón, with Neymar and Messi on the score sheet.

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Toni AlbirEFE

Simeone’s game plan was as straightforward as the Atlético coach’s press conference responses: hard work, discipline and unity. Using a formation that morphed between an attacking 4-1-4-1 in possession to a brick wall 4-5-1 when defending to choke the supply lines to Barcelona’s front three, Atlético looked the most likely side to score early on despite happily ceding two-thirds of possession to the hosts, relying instead on the pace and invention of their attacking players to hit Barcelona on the break. It was a decent ploy and one that paid immediate dividends when Saúl tested Claudio Bravo with a curling effort before the canterano teed up his fellow youth-teamer Koke from the left channel worked for the opening goal, a first time strike from the Spain international leaving Bravo grasping fresh air.

The visitors almost doubled their advantage on 20 minutes when Augusto Fernández fizzed a long-range effort past Bravo’s upright and had that shot sneaked in Enrique may have been forced into a rethink with head-to-head results – the primary tie-breaker in La Liga -- to take into consideration.

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But as Simeone was well aware going into the game, trying to prevent Barça’s front line from carving out a chance is like hacking away at a Hydra’s hairdo. You may cut one off but another will spring up in its place.

Barcelona’s dominion of the ball began to pay dividends when Suárez drew a fine save from Oblak on 29 minutes and a minute later Messi levelled the match with his 12th of the season. Neymar played in Jordi Alba on the left and the left-back laid off to the Argentinean, who simply had to put his laces through the ball from close range.

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Griezmann almost provided an immediate response but a rare moment of panic from the France international resulted in the ball being hoisted harmlessly over Bravo’s bar. That, Atlético were left to rue, is the problem with relying on Griezmann to bail the side out of every hole they encounter.

Griezmann’s hands had hardly left his face when Suárez struck at the other end. Barcelona borrowed Atlético’s tactic, Dani Alves releasing the Uruguayan down the right with a lofted ball for the Pichichi leader, who shrugged off a cursory challenge from José Jiménez to fire past Oblak.

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It was a sucker punch against a side more accustomed to delivering that very blow and just before the stroke of half time Atlético were reduced to 10 men when Filipe Luis was shown a straight red card for a reckless challenge on Messi, although the Brazilian did appear to get a slice of the ball before a good chunk of the Argentinean's recently healed left knee.

After the restart Atlético, led by the livewire running of Carrasco and Griezmann, sought an equalizer relentlessly and the Frenchman had a golden chance to level the match from close range but Bravo made a tremendous stop with his feet despite going the wrong way to add to Atlético’s collective woe.

Simeone had cut a menacing figure on the touchline for most of the second half and the Argentinean’s mood darkened even further when Suárez took full advantage of a scything challenge from Diego Godín. There is little doubt it was a foul, and sufficient to earn a second yellow, but the swapping of shirts and pleasantries between the international teammates is unlikely after the Barça forward’s triple roll and tuck to emphasise the point.

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Down to nine men, 2-1 down and playing Barcelona at home is never ideal and even the consummate never-say-die attitude of Cholism gave way to pragmatism as the Atlético manager withdrew Griezmann and threw on defender Stefan Savic to help keep the score line the same.

To add insult to injury, Augusto was stretchered off shortly after Barcelona had brought former Atlético talisman Arda Turan off the bench, a nod to the oft-repeated Simeone line of who his side’s real opponents in La Liga are.

It was an afternoon of what-ifs for the capital side, who for spells had the better of the contest and who threw everything into a last-ditch effort for an equaliser but whose trademark physicality in the end cost them the game and possibly more: Barcelona’s win opened up a three-point lead at the top of the table and Enrique’s side also have a game in hand.


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