Barcelona bring Atletico’s season to an end
It was the last roll of the dice in terms of La Liga’s title race and there were no surprises. Or, rather, the surprise was how, playing with 10 men for more than an hour, Atletico Madrid showed that their “Cholismo” style of play is alive and well, at least well enough to rattle Barcelona on auto-pilot. But then they succumbed to the inevitable — a fine Luis Suarez finish and the usual Lionel Messi clock-in — and, for the eighth time in the past 11 seasons, the title is all but headed to the Camp Nou.
Atletico would need to make up 12 points (Barca have the head-to-head tiebreaker) in the remaining seven matches, and that simply won’t happen. You wonder what might have been had Diego Costa not shared his views about the referee’s mother, earning himself that early red card, but you’re left with the sneaking suspicion that it wouldn’t have mattered.
Barca would have found a way through just as, broadly speaking, they’ve found their way through this season, navigating the various hurdles and hiccups Ernesto Valverde has had to deal with. From Ousmane Dembele‘s absences (some forced, some less so) to the shakiness at the back, from slow starts for Suarez and Ivan Rakitic to the non-start that has been Philippe Coutinho‘s Camp Nou career thus far, Barca have maintained their forward momentum.
It would be wrong to say Messi has carried them through the tough times. But with 43 goals in 40 matches this season, and 10 in his last six, he’s peaking when it counts. And with Jordi Alba regaining his form, Arthur emerging in midfield and Marc-Andre ter Stegen hitting new heights, he’s not the only one to have been solid throughout this peculiar campaign.
The Treble remains a possibility — Barca are in the Spanish Cup final (vs. Valencia, May 25) and take on Manchester United this week in the Champions League quarterfinal, first leg — and it’s safe to say few would have expected it early in the season. That’s a credit to Valverde: not everyone’s cup of tea and not a managerial genius, but a guy who evidently gets things done and, crucially, manages to keep a lid on controversy.
This job wore down Tata Martino and Luis Enrique and spat them out at the end; Valverde seems unfazed.
Just when you thought the tide had turned, Bayern sent Borussia Dortmund an emphatic reminder of why they’ve won six straight Bundesliga titles. This was an epic beatdown — Bayern were 4-0 up at half-time and 5-0 at the final whistle, possibly because they were bored of scoring — and it had as much to do with the Bavarians’ merits as it did with Dortmund’s errors.
Let’s start with the former. Javi Martinez and Thiago Alcantara may have blown hot and cold this season, but they dominated the middle of the park on Saturday with a combination of quality and steel. The oft-criticized Mats Hummels notched the opener and showed the sort of leadership and intelligence that made him one of the most coveted center-backs around, at least back in the day. The wingers stretched and harried and forward Thomas Muller, back in a central position, did what he does behind the ever-clinical Robert Lewandowski.
Equally though, some of this must be on Lucien Favre. Already without key players Paco Alcacer, Raphael Guerreiro and Achraf Hakimi, his Dortmund set-up was undone by a string of individual errors. Many blamed him for his decision to keep Mario Gotze on the bench and play Marco Reus as a false nine: to me, that’s less of an issue than his other big guns wilting under pressure and making silly mistakes.
Don’t crown Bayern just yet, mind you: they only lead Dortmund by one point with six games remaining. Not to mention that after Dortmund’s superb first half of the season, it would be unacceptable for them to raise the white flag just yet.