Barcelona struck what will surely prove to be a decisive blow in La Liga’s title race on Sunday afternoon, establishing an eight-point advantage over nearest challengers Atletico Madrid with a 1-0 win at the Nou Camp.
Although the victory came by the narrowest of margins, it was a fully deserved success for the home team, who managed to create several decent chances to add to Lionel Messi’s magnificent free-kick after 25 minutes against a stubborn Atletico defence that has only conceded 12 goals in 27 league games.
The winning goal was also the 600th of Messi’s career.
The closest Barca came to a second goal was the unlikely route of a fierce left-footed volley by the excellent Sergio Busquets from a corner, forcing visiting keeper Jan Oblak into a smart reflex save.
There were also a couple of efforts on target for ex-Liverpool man Philippe Coutinho, who delivered a bright performance starting on the right of a forward three and then on the left of midfield after captain Andres Iniesta went off injured.
Messi also had a dangerous shot deflected over the bar and Luis Suarez sent a late curler narrowly wide, while at the other end Atletico only managed one shot on target in the whole game – and that was only a gently looping header by Saul Niguez which home keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen saved with ease.
Atletico attempted to increase their intensity in the final stages as manager Diego Simeone finished with four forwards in a bold 4-2-4 formation, but Diego Costa was subdued by the excellent home central defensive pairing of Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti, and reported Barca transfer target Antoine Griezmann couldn’t maintain his golden form after coming into the game on the back of consecutive hat-tricks.
It was entirely appropriate that Messi was the match-winner of this top-of-the-table clash with his brilliant first-half free-kick, because the Argentine has been magnificent throughout the campaign to lead La Liga in both scoring (24) and assists (12).
The goal also completed another spectacular week for Messi, who somehow conjured up a new way of making headlines by blasting home magnificent free-kicks of varying styles in three consecutive games.
First, against Girona last weekend, he took advantage of a jumping defensive wall to fire low and hard into the bottom left corner.
Then at Las Palmas on Thursday he unleashed a missile into the top left corner, while today’s effort was sent soaring gloriously into the top right.
This potentially title-winning goal also marked another milestone for Messi as he reached the scarcely believable total of 600 career goals for club and country.
And with their main man in this kind of form, it would be unwise to bet against Barca as they set their sights on matching the achievements of the teams led by Pep Guardiola in 2009 and Luis Enrique in 2015 – recording the league, cup and Champions League treble.
They can also create another piece of history by becoming the first team in La Liga history to go through an entire season unbeaten; 27 down, 11 to go.
Atletico to focus on Europa League?
La Liga’s title race is now surely over, with Barca boasting an eight-point lead which is effectively nine points due to La Liga’s use of head-to-head results, rather than goal difference, to split tied teams. The teams drew 1-1 in Madrid in October thanks to a late equaliser from Luis Suarez, so Barca hold that advantage.
With that being that case, it means Atletico need to win all their remaining games – and one of them, in early April, is a trip to face local rivals Real Madrid – and hope that Barca lose three of their remaining 11 games.
As Ernesto Valverde’s men have not lost at all so far in the league this season, that looks an extremely forlorn hope for Simeone’s team.
In fact, Atletico will now probably turn their attention to the Europa League, having suffered a major disappointment earlier in the campaign by getting knocked out of the Champions League in the group stage.
Despite the laudable consistency they have shown in competing well with Barca and Real Madrid over the last few years, Atletico have not won anything since taking the Spanish Super Cup at the start of the 2014/15 campaign.
For an intense and enormously competitive manager like Simeone that is far too long a wait for the next piece of silverware, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him rotate his starting eleven for upcoming league games and make the Europa League the number one priority – starting with Thursday’s last sixteen first leg at home to Lokomotiv Moscow.
Irrespective of their success on that front, it is inevitable there will continue to be speculation over the future of Simeone, who has been in charge since 2011 and previously stated he will leave the club if he feels he can no longer take them forward. Is that time rapidly approaching?