Clinical finishing from Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez and two brutal challenges from Luis Felipe and Diego Godin – both resulting in red cards – meant Barcelona beat nine-man Atletico Madrid to go three points clear at the top of La Liga.
Messi was off the pitch writing in agony, and Barca coach Luis Enrique was on the pitch protesting at the end of the first half after Filipe Luis launched an horrific knee-high challenge on the five-times Ballon d’Or winner. He received a straight red for the assault on the Argentine who had earlier scored from Jordi Alba’s pass to cancel out Koke’s opener.
In the second period Luis Suarez was then sent several feet high by a late lunging challenge from Godin and the defender who had already been booked was shown a second yellow. Suarez had put Barca ahead just before the break, burying Dani Alves’ pass.
All this after Atletico had started the brighter of the two sides and taken the lead on 10 minutes when Saul was allowed to drive the ball back from the right byline and Koke, arriving unmarked on the penalty spot, finished past Claudio Bravo.
It seemed Barcelona would now be in for a real test. They would have to beat Jan Oblak twice – a keeper who had only conceded three goals away from home all season and who had kept 14 clean sheets in 21 games.
It took them just 28 minutes to do it.
First came the resistance though. Godin and Jose Gimenez dived in front of a Dani Alves shot to send it clear and Godin and Gabi were booked – the defender for catching Suarez and the midfielder for chopping down Ivan Rakitic.
Stubborn defending, especially at the limits of the laws of the game only takes a team so far however and eventually the Barca goals came.
First Suarez went close when Oblak blocked his shot at the near post. The Slovenian keeper got down well but the next shot intended for that near post pocket found its destination – Oblak couldn’t stop it, he barely saw it.
Messi was the executioner, Alba the architect with a clever cross straight to the Argentine’s feet in a crowded area.
When the second came it was far less intricate. Alves played in Suarez down the right and he shielded the ball from Jimenez long enough for it to sit up for him in the six-yard box allowing him to thunder it through Oblak’s legs.
The Uruguayan now has 31 goals in all competitions and this, like so many others he has scored since his arrival, was a game-changing one.
All Atletico’s good early work had been undone and they become increasingly frustrated – when Luis went studs-up at Messi’s knees right in front of the two dugouts. The Barca bench duly exploded in outrage and referee Alberto Undiano sent the former Chelsea defender off.
Despite the swift show of justice from the match official it seemed Luis Enrique still wanted to get at Luis. The Brazilian defender spent six months out after suffering a horrendous leg-break playing for Deportivo La Coruna against Athletic Bilbao in 2010 so you would imagine there was no malicious intent but the studs marks above Messi’s right knee illustrated how lucky he had been to have escaped serious injury.
The game should have been over as a contest but no-one told the Belgian Yannick Carrasco who kept carrying the fight to Barcelona first with a charge down the left and then a cross from the right which Griezmann only had to guide past Bravo from five-yards out. The keeper saved with his boot and Barca stayed in front but under pressure.
The 10 men were doing a fine job but how would they manage with nine? Godin dived in on Suarez and the referee showed him a second yellow.
This time it really was game over. Although when the third goal never came Barcelona did have to defend a late corner for which Oblak had gone forward. They saw out the injury time and were grateful there was not more of it.
Enrique’s men are now gradually pulling away from the field dodging the wild challenges as they go.