The combination of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez once again proved to be the undoing of Atletico Madrid, as the latter assisted the former to inflict a damaging late defeat on Diego Simeone's men at a wet Wanda Metropolitano on Sunday night.
The home side started the brighter of the two, with central defender Mario Hermoso proving to be the unlikely attacking threat. The number 22 saw his fizzed low cross deflect off the far post, before forcing an unbelievable stop out of Marc-Andre ter Stegen from close range, leaving Barcelona counting themselves lucky to be level after 20 minutes.
The visitors' game-plan seemed to centre around grinding down and simply out-lasting their more bushy-tailed hosts, and as the first half wore on, there were one or two signs that strategy was beginning to work.
The game was being played at a quick tempo, but aside from a hectic opening 20 minutes that had the visitors on the ropes, the teams cancelled each other out well, and it developed into an intriguing tactical encounter that really flipped the script with what we've come to expect from each over the years.
Atleti played on the front foot, while Barca sat off, though they did see a good deal of the ball as the game went on.
With the game as tight as it was into the latter stages of the second half, it became increasingly apparent that any moment of real quality could decide it; and when you're up against a side that has Messi and Suarez in that type of game, you're in trouble.
And so it proved for Atletico, as the little Argentine drove forward and played a patented one-two with the Uruguayan, before stroking a devastating left-footed finish past Oblak on 85 minutes to call game, and put Barcelona back on top of the tree.
Key Talking Point
18 league games without a win against Barcelona says it all about Atletico's La Liga fortunes against the defending champions. For love nor money, they just have not been able to force a result against Ernesto Valverde's men.
Add into the mix their inconsistent start to the season, then, and you might have understood why Atleti would have been less than confident of a win. Still, they sat three points behind their visitors at the start of play, and a win would have reignited their faltering title challenge.
Though they started like a side intent on getting that elusive result, though, they were worn down by a rigid, resolute Barcelona performance, and were eventually undone, to no shame of their own, by Lionel Messi.
It was a performance which Diego Simeone might have been ok with but, in the bigger picture, his side have won just three in the last 12 La Liga games...
Starting XI: Oblak (7); Trippier (6), Felipe (6), Hermoso (7),
Subs: Vitolo (6), Lemar (6)
Star Man - Mario Hermoso
Manning the inside channel occupied by Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, while frequently covering for a midfielder being played out of position as a make-shift left-back? No problem.
Special mention to Mario Hermoso who has been absolutely immaculate. Not put a foot wrong and could've also had a hand in 2 goals on a luckier day.— AU (@parteyismo) December 1, 2019
He has had increased workload because of Saul at LB today but he seems to be relishing the challenge. Growing into the team.
How good a defender is Mario Hermoso btw? He handled Messi on a ball in behind better than I've seen 99.9% of defenders over the last 10 years.— ETHAN (@EthanFromOnline) December 1, 2019
Him and Josema are going to be monsters if given time.
His side's defensive unit might have been undone by a bit of Messi magic in the end, but over the piece this was as good an individual defensive performance as you will see in La Liga this season.
Key Talking Point
Though their recent record against Atleti has been favourable, Barcelona were seven games without a win at Wanda Metropolitano heading into this one. Far from the perfect venue for a side looking to keep their head above water after a decent recent run eased a unit or two of the pressure on their under-fire manager, then.
They had won four matches on the spin since that heavily-criticised stalemate with Sparta Praha, and knew that a win here would have put them back on top of the tree in La Liga, after Real Madrid had beaten Alaves to retake top spot 24 hours earlier.
Ultimately, in doing so, they were far from at their fluent best. But at one of the most difficult grounds in world football, any win would have done.
One side had Messi and the other didn't, and that, as it so often does, proved to be the difference on the day. And c
En la mesa de Messi sólo come Messi.— Lluís Izquierdo (@lluisizquierdo) December 1, 2019
Tomorrow, Lionel Messi is most likely lifting his 6th Ballon d'Or, while today, he scored 4 minutes before full-time away against Atletico Madrid to decide the game. Consistency is underrated.— Zafer (@zaferdc) December 1, 2019
Valverde’s strategy of “Messi, please for the love of god win this shit for me” worked wonders.— Rafael Hernández (@RafaelH117) December 1, 2019
I hope Ter Stegen and Messi have their own running text conversation that's just them messaging each other the eye roll emoji after each game, in reference to their teammates— Zito (@_Zeets) December 1, 2019
Messi also scored in the 86th minute the last time these two sides met in April. Very similar game, Atletico did really well but then Messi did Messi.— The Spanish Football Podcast (@tsf_podcast) December 1, 2019
Starting XI: Ter Stegen (7); Roberto (7), Pique (8), Lenglet (7), Firpo (6); Arthur (7), Rakitic (6), De Jong (7); Messi (8), Suarez (6), Griezmann (6)
Subs: Vidal (6), Umtiti (6)
Star Man - Gerard Pique
He was rough, he was tumble, and he was toeing the line of a red card for much of the second half, but Gerard Pique's influence over the Barcelona defence cannot be overstated.
Pique has been immense! But yeah sure Umtiti and Lenglet because they did well against Dortmund who didn't have a striker. SIT DOWN! pic.twitter.com/vxZXPED2uw— Jonathan Harris (@JonathanHarisFC) December 1, 2019
Gerard Pique continues to show his keen interest in other sports. Tennis last week, rugby tonight— Richard Martin (@Rich9908) December 1, 2019
Up against Alvaro Morata, the experienced centre-half was never going to be in for an easy evening, but he managed to limit the target man to a quiet performance and made sure his side left with a clean sheet, even if they were far from at their best.
Atletico Madrid travel to face Villarreal on Friday, before Champions League action returns midweek, as they look to make sure of their place in the last 16 with a victory over Lokomotiv Moscow.
Barcelona, meanwhile, head back to Camp Nou to face Real Zaragoza, before taking on Inter - although they won't be overly concerned about that having already won Group F.