Neymar cancelled out a stunning opening goal by Diego to ensure it ended all square between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid at the Nou Camp – their fourth draw of the season – with everything to play for in the Champions League quarter-final second leg next week at the Calderon.
Diego Costa was named in the starting line-up despite retiring prematurely from Atleti’s training session the previous evening, but succumbed to a hamstring injury which is almost certain to rule him out of the return leg in Madrid.
David Villa came in for the suspended Raul Garcia and had the first attempt of the night, trying his luck from 30 yards but firing well wide of the target. The former Barça striker had a clearer opportunity just moments later, receiving the ball after Arda Turan had intercepted Pinto’s poor kick, but shot wide of the far post.
Barça had to make their first substitution of the night after just 11 minutes, Gerard Pique struggling after an aerial challenge and forced to come off for 23-year-old Marc Bartra, who shined in a rare moment in the spotlight. Despite the early openings, the game soon took the same shape of the three cagey encounters between the two sides this season, with Barça taking until 23 minutes to test Courtois, Neymar heading softly into the Belgian’s hands.
The second half began like the first with little space opening up, so it required a goal out of nothing to break the deadlock. That is what Diego produced in the 56th minute when he picked the ball up on the right hand side following a free-kick, beat Xavi then drove the ball from an impossible angle and range into the top corner.
Barça were unable to find an immediate response, resorting to Iniesta appealing for a penalty and the unlikely figure of Sergio Busquets shooting from outside the area, his effort patted away comfortably by Courtois. Messi then tried to head a cross from Alves towards goal but it hit his chest on its way over the bar.
Barça got their equaliser with 20 minutes remaining when Iniesta split the Atleti defence with an exquisite pass to Neymar inside the area, the Brazilian shooting into the far corner of Courtois’ net with one touch. The goal galvanised the Nou Camp and rattled the visitors. Just a few minutes later Iniesta went looking for goal, only denied by an inspired leap across goal by Courtois, who finger tipped the ball out for a corner.
Barça had a near monopoly on possession after the equaliser, while Atletico finished the game playing with second string midfielder Cristian Rodriguez as their sole striker, a damning indictment of the thinness of Diego Simeone’s squad in comparison to Barça, who had Pedro and Alexis Sanchez on the bench.
Courtois made one final save of the night to keep out Messi’s late free-kick, and Atletico will feel relieved to return to Madrid with the tie evenly balanced, having scored a crucial goal to boot.