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Barça will not be featuring in the Spanish Super Cup Final on Saturday. There will be no Clásico in Saudi Arabia. Instead it will be Atlético Madrid who take on their city rivals for the trophy, but the blaugrana will be returning to Catalonia with their heads held very high indeed.
Thursday’s semi-final was game that had everything. Intensity, exquisite football, stunning goalkeeping, controversy, drama and goals. But a game that was every bit as thrilling as the classic Barça v Atlético games of the 1990s had a cruel twist right at the end.
After conceding the opener against the run of play, Barça were looking very good indeed for their 2-1 lead. And VAR denied them two further goals. But Atlético chose the final minutes to play their best football of the game, and two late goals mean they will be progressing to the final instead.
The scepticism that the new format would take any of the intensity out of the occasion was soon debunked. Barça in particular took the game by the horns, dominating all the statistical categories that count bar one – goals.
The blaugrana machine was in full flow, and so were the chances. Atlético spent most of the time doing all they could to make sure the crowd, the vast majority of whom were siding with the Catalans, had nothing to celebrate.
With Jan Oblak making two particularly crucial saves, the red-and-whites were still hanging on by the break, but there was no question at all which side had brought the best football to Saudi Arabia.
It was in the seond half that the game truly took off. Big time. Koke, a half-time substitute and in the very first move after the restart, received the ball from Correa and slotted it past Neto. Atlético led.
That didn’t make sense. Barça needed to react. They did. And quick.
Arturo Vidal started it, Luis Suárez continued it and Leo Messi outwitted three defenders to finish it. An incredible 31st career goal against Atlético. 1-1. Now that did make sense.
VAR says no, twice
It wasn’t long before he did it again, rounding Saúl and slamming home his and Barça’s second. But the VAR guys wanted a second look, and decided the ball had touched the Argentinian’s arm.
Close call. Tough call.
That goal didn’t stand, but the next one did. Tremendous cross from Jordi Alba … Powerful header from Suárez … Exceptional block from Oblak … And Antoine Griezmann was there to head in the rebound.
That the next goal got ruled out by VAR was a tragedy. VAR may have got the decision right by a matter of milimetres, but it pained to see such a beautiful piece of football go unrewarded. It was a joy to behold how Vidal brilliantly received Messi’s free kick, and knocked it back for Gerard Piqué to convert, but the very slightest off offsides had been spotted in the build-up.
Atlético come to life
With Barça ruing a second disallowed goal, Atlético equalised. Vitolo was brought down by Neto in the area (the Brazilian keeper was perhaps fortunate to get away with a yellow) and Álvaro Morata converted from the spot.
Atlético may have felt they deserved a second spot kick when Piqué looked to have handled the ball in the area, but moments later they were ahead.
Ángel Correa broke free, Neto got a hand to the shot, but the ball kept moving. Excruciatingly, almost in slow motion, it made it across the line.
In a mystifying, incident-packed game, Atlético now led 3-2. Nobody could quite understand how it was happening, and Marcos Llorente could even have made it four had Neto not produced a fantastic save.
One final charge from Barça, but it was not to be. Atlético will now face Madrid neighbours Real in the final, and Ernesto Valverde and his men will be flying home.
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