It’s been a while since the Wanda Metropolitano was near full capacity. More than 60,000 fans, the largest crowd since before the pandemic began, watched Atlético Madrid welcome Barcelona on Saturday night, though welcome might be the wrong word, as the hosts were anything but hospitable to a Barcelona side arriving in the Spanish capital like a wounded animal following their humbling loss to Benfica on Wedneesday.
The home fans could smell blood: The atmosphere in the Wanda was as feverish as it’s ever been, and the occasion marked a reunion between Atlético forward Luis Suárez and his former team. Suárez leading Atleti to last season’s La Liga title after Barcelona got rid of him typified the disarray the Catalan club has been in, so it was fitting that he made the decisive contribution on Saturday. When Thomas Lemar played him in just before halftime, the outcome was so inevitable that Gerard Piqué gave up trying to close Suárez down. Instead, Pique went straight past goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen toward his own goal line. He knew what was about to happen; everyone did, including Suárez, who struck the ball past ter Stegen and Piqué and nestled it into the bottom left corner: 2-0 Atleti and Barcelona were as good as done.
Suárez celebrated by holding his hand to his ear as though it was a phone, a gesture mockingly directed at Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman, who infamously told Suárez that he no longer had a place in the team anymore in a less than minute-long phone call. There was a further humiliation for Koeman since he watched the game from the stands while serving a touchline ban and spent much of the first half on the phone delivering instructions from afar.
He might have been pleased for the opening two minutes or so: The game exploded at a furious pace, and Barcelona played as well as they have all season. But it didn’t last long, and once Atleti asserted themselves, Barcelona couldn’t cope with their counterattacks, each of which was cheered by a raucous Wanda crowd. After Lemar scored to give Atleti a 1-0 lead midway through the first half, the cameras cut to Koeman, who expressed his dismay at what had transpired. What he was thinking or saying at the moment is anyone’s guess, because the game transpired as many expected. It also went a good way in showing the truest versions of both sides: Atletic were relentless, while Barcelona largely capitulated.
If there was a positive for Barcelona, it was that they had 71 percent possession, but that was by Atleti’s design. Barça managed that because they switched to a back four in defense after their initial formation of a back three failed again. They created very few chances from their possession, registering just two shots on target to Atleti’s three and an xG total of 0.97 to Atleti’s 1.29. Barcelona will most likely put away many lesser sides playing this way this season, but their title hopes already appear slim. Barcelona president Joan Laporta backed Koeman before the Atleti game, saying he “deserves confidence,” but what else is Laporta supposed to say? La Liga’s updated spending restrictions further reduced Barcelona’s spending ability, so the cost of firing Koeman and hiring a new manager might not be financially feasible anyway.
For the victors, Atleti’s performance is arguably their best in some time. They’ve struggled to click so far this season, and Diego Simeone has been unable to integrate a number of attacking pieces—notably Antoine Griezmann—into a side that seemed, for a brief moment at least, a little bit lost. Saturday’s win suggested Atleti’s best team may not feature Griezmann, but Joao Félix. The club’s record signing has had a difficult time since an ankle injury halted his impressive run of form last season. But when the Wanda is filled and Atleti go full Atleti, Félix thrives, adding intensity, bite, and attacking flair, and he complements the pieces around him.
Atlético Madrid will hope to take advantage of Real Madrid and Barcelona’s deficiencies and retain their La Liga title for the first time since 1951. They are a club for whom suffering is necessary and almost expected. On Saturday, however, it was Barcelona’s turn to suffer, as the Wanda was basked in joy.