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FC Barcelona’s Champions League title defence came to an end on Wednesday night as they fell at the quarter final stage to Atlético Madrid for the second time in three years. A first half header and a second half penalty from Antoine Griezmann cancelled out the Catalans’ 2-1 lead from the first leg, and it means that the dream of repeating the famous treble of 2014/15 is over.
Atlético Madrid knew that to have any chance at all of qualifying, they were going to have to score at least once. Indeed, the home side had already had three pops on goal inside the first ten minutes. But Barça weathered the early storm and gradually gained control of the all-important possession in midfield.
From there, the football was as intense as expected, and yet it produced surprisingly little in the way of clear-cut chances at either end. But just when it looked like Barça had managed to smother the fire out of Atlético, the vociferous Calderón crowd got what they had been roaring for. Saúl banged the ball into the area and Griezmann’s head did the rest, flicking the ball out of reach of Ter Stegen. 1-0 to Atlético, and the away goal from the first leg meant that as things stood, they were going through.
Now it was Barça who needed to score, and Neymar very nearly did just that straight from the restart. The Brazilian’s curving strike was coolly saved by Oblak, but that was the only time that the Slovenian stopper was truly tested before the half-time whistle blew.
Diego Simeone might have been expected to instruct his men to sit back and defend the lead, but there was plenty to keep the Barça defence busy as the second half began, the biggest danger coming when Saul looped a header onto the crossbar. Barça needed to react, and they did. Messi fired one warning. Then Iniesta fired another. But the meanest defence in La Liga was holding out.
On 65 minutes, Luis Suárez slammed a fine chance into hands of Oblak. As the minutes ticked by, Barça were making life harder and harder for their hosts, with Luis Enrique sending on Sergi Roberto and Arda Turan to bolster the attacking edge of his midfield.
As the game moved into the last ten minutes, all of the action was in and around the Atlético area. But try as they did, Barça simply could not find the way through. And just as his team were suffering more than ever, Filipe Luis broke free on a mazy counter-attack and the move ended with Iniesta handling the ball in his own area. Penalty.
Griezmann did the business from the spot, but a Barça goal would still have been enough to take the game into extra time. The Blaugrana piled everything they had at Atlético in a final lunge to do just that, and as the game was heading into injury time, they probably should have been awarded a penalty when Gabi handled the ball. The referee gave a free-kick, but replays revealed that the infringement had taken place just inside the area.
Messi ended a frustrating for evening for Barça by sending the kick over the bar, and Atlético desperately clung on for the remaining minutes. The bid to become the first team to win back-to-back titles in the Champions League era is over. Instead, it will be Diego Simeone’s side that joins Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Manchester City in Friday’s draw.
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