Everything was to play for at the start and it remained so afterwards too. This tight and tense top-of-the-table clash did little to settle the most intriguing of title races four games out from the finish.
Neither Barcelona nor Atletico Madrid could grab the game, and consequently the La Liga title contest, by the scruff of the neck. Although, perhaps, both were more interested in not losing any sort of grip they currently have on the La Liga trophy.
So with three games to go for both Ronald Koeman and Diego Simeone’s teams, the destination of the title is not in either of their hands. Rather, if Real Madrid win their final four matches, which starts with the visit of fourth-placed Sevilla on Sunday, they will retain their Spanish title.
However, given the nature of this season, and the iffy performances of the participants at the top of the table, any of them winning four games in a row seems a stretch. That’s what has made the climax to this Spanish season so compelling. Atletico, who had a 10-point buffer at the top not so long ago, could be displaced from first place just at the crucial moment of the campaign.
On the other hand, this point against Barcelona could be oh so useful. They are the only team of the trio at the top who have two home games left to play after this weekend. Could home advantage play a part? There are still so many questions left to be answered even though time is swiftly running out.
Story of the game
‘Who wins La Liga?’ asked the front cover of Marca while Diario AS labelled this contest as: ‘The Thriller’. A thriller this was not, but it was still pivotal nevertheless. Koeman, who has placed more than his fair share of trust in young players this season, started with Oscar Mingueza and Sergio Dest down the right and deployed a 3-5-2 formation which Simeone reciprocated with Luis Suarez and Angel Correa starting up front.
The sense of tension being over-bearing was evident early on with neither side fully taking the game to the opposition. Instead, the opening half-hour was most notable for the injuries that both Thomas Lemar and Sergi Busquets suffered in separate incidents which required the pair to be substituted early on.
Barcelona only managed their first attempt on target in the 29th minute, Antoine Griezmann shooting straight at Jan Oblak, his former team-mate. Atletico held a high line which pushed the entire team forward and, subsequently, Barcelona backwards. The latter stages of the first half were dominated by Simeone’s side and they may have rued not going in at the break ahead.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen was forced into three key saves in the space of three minutes. One flowing move saw Marcos Llorente bring a low save from the Barcelona goalkeeper even though there had been an offside in the build-up. Then Suarez was denied by Ter Stegen at the front post with a low block.
Soon enough Atletico were back knocking on the door. A strong left hand by Ter Stegen stopped a Yannick Carrasco effort and then the German goalkeeper was quickly to his feet to put Suarez off his close-range header from the rebound.
Down at the other end, Leo Messi cut in from the right, taking on the entire Atletico defence, but his shot, which may have been travelling wide anyway, was pushed for a corner by Oblak.
It was Messi who started to pull the strings at the beginning of the second half too. One noticeable aspect of the opening goalless hour was the variety of Atletico’s attack, with the options of Carrasco down the left, Llorente on the right and Suarez through the centre, compared to Barcelona’s single variant of Messi wherever.
Things changed with Koeman sending on Ronald Araujo to add sturdiness to the backline and Ousmane Dembele as another attacking outlet for the home side. Still it was Messi who remained their creator-in-chief. He dinked a cross towards Gerard Pique but the centre-back’s header directed at goal was easily claimed by Oblak.
The Atletico goalkeeper, who has conceded 22 goals this season - the lowest in the division - was also on hand to dive and parry away a free-kick from the Barcelona captain which was aimed at the bottom corner. Another Messi intervention, this time a cross, was headed past Oblak by Araujo but the goal was ruled out for offside.
It was clear that Barcelona were on the front foot to a greater extent in the second half, Atletico were at times hanging on as la Blaugrana dominated the ball in their final third. Yet, no killer chance could be created, or at least finished as the clocked ticked down. Simeone has never won at Camp Nou and he may have started to fear the worst.
With fives minutes to play, a lovely passing move by the home team saw the ball worked to the left of the Atletico area. Jordi Alba clipped a centre ball, Dembele rose high but was unable to get over the ball enough to properly steer his attempt which travelled over the crossbar.
The final minutes didn’t quite have the desperation and desire one would expect when a goal for either side could be so pivotal in the title race. That said, no goals could end up being just as decisive as it means that Real Madrid are now in the driving seat with only a few turns left to navigate.
Barcelona centre-back Gerard Pique said after the match that the league title race is “still wide open” and “anything can happen” even though it is now in Real Madrid’s hands who have four games left to play.
“We’re still in the mix,” Pique said. “La Liga’s still wide open, three games is a lot even if we know it’s not in our hands anymore.
“Anything can happen. I’d like to know if any other side in La Liga has won four in a row, it’s only something we’ve done.
“If we win our remaining three matches, I think we’ll win the league. We’re going to fight until the end, even if we haven’t done what we needed.”
Meanwhile, Atletico coach Diego Simeone said he would not watch Real’s important game with Sevilla on Sunday evening despite the impact it has on his side’s own chances of claiming a first league title since 2014.
“I’m not watching the [other teams’] games,” he said. “I don’t enjoy it so I’d prefer not to watch. I don’t think it will go any differently if I do watch it, so I’ll have dinner with my family and get ready for Monday’s session and focus on playing a good game against Real Sociedad” on Wednesday.
“It’s a great season, where four sides are looking for the best possible ending. The game transpired as we wanted it to. We attacked well through pressing them and recovering the ball. We were great in the first half, and the second was more even.”
His goalkeeper, Jan Oblak, acknowledged that Atletico are no longer in control of the outcome this season, but he pointed out that having a game in hand is not always a good thing.
“It’s true, we don’t have things in our own hands, but Real and Sevilla have to play four games, whereas we have three. It’ll be tough to the end for everyone. There’s a lot of games with a lot to play for, all tough matches, and whoever comes through this period strongest will win La Liga.”
Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Mingueza (Araujo 46), Pique, Lenglet; Dest (Roberto 75), De Jong, Busquets (Ilaix 32), Pedri (Dembele 75), Alba; Messi, Griezmann.
Atletico: Oblak; Trippier, Savic, Felipe, Hermoso; Carrasco, Koke, Llorente, Lemar (Saul 14 (Felix 67)); Correa (Kondogbia 73), Suarez.
Referee: Antonio Mateu Lahoz.