Ronald Koeman will retain his post despite the latest humiliating defeat for powerful Barcelona. Atletico Madrid inflicted on Barcelona another hard life without Lionel Messi when Diego Simeone’s well-established side easily won 2-0 in the Spanish league on Saturday.
Luis Suarez and Thomas Lemar set goals for each other, and only Simeone’s apparent desire to let Barcelona flounder instead of attacking everything saved Koeman’s side from a bigger loss.
Luckily for Koeman, Barcelona’s defeat came hours after club president Joan Laporta broke his silence and promised Koeman would stay regardless of the outcome at the defending champions. His defense of Koeman came after two days of silence as Spanish media reported that Laporta was set to fire the Dutch manager after Barcelona lost their first two Champions League games.
Koeman watched his side’s latest disappearance from a box in the stands at Wanda Metropolitano, where he served the second of a two-game suspension for protesting the referee in a draw at Cadiz. Lemar’s first goal made Koeman’s hands go up. After Suarez’s second, he could only rub his eyes before picking up his phone to likely give more orders to assistant Alfred Schreuder in the dugout.
Schreuder made substitutions and reshuffled the squad in the second half, but Diego Simeone’s experienced side had no trouble blocking all three points. There was no Barcelona last push, no Messi-style rebirth to overthrow a game that seemed lost.
“They scored two goals with very little effort, when we could have kept playing for three hours and not scored,” said Barcelona’s Gerard Pique. “We are suffering, honestly. These are tough times, and a lot of us on the team have never been through it. “
Simeone led the crowd of over 60,000 in celebrations in the closing minutes of Atletico’s opener with a comeback at full capacity since the start of the pandemic. Health authorities have lifted the national ceiling of 60% attendance this week. Atletico moved up to second, tied on points with leaders Real Madrid, who play Espanyol on Sunday.
Barcelona are in ninth place and five points behind the top two. Koeman’s side have won just three of nine matches in all competitions this season, their first without Messi in nearly two decades. Koeman said he appreciated Laporta’s support, although he could have arrived a little earlier.
“It is very important for me as a coach and for the team, and it is important that the president makes this decision,” said Koeman. “But I know it’s Barcelona and we have to win games.”
Koeman stressed that a three-game home streak after next week’s international break was key to starting a turnaround. With Pedri Gonzalez out with a muscle injury, Koeman has lined up two more teenagers in his midfield. Midfielder Gavi Paez, who at 17 has been called up for Spain‘s next Nations League semi-final against Italy, provided some of the few flashes Barcelona could produce in attack. Nico González, 19, was substituted at half-time.
And just like against Bayern Munich and Benfica, who both beat Barcelona 3-0 in the Champions League, Barcelona’s mix of youngsters and veterans have been outclassed by Atletico. Simeone’s side are so deep that he used former Barcelona striker Antoine Griezmann as a late replacement and let João Félix start alongside Suarez.
Atletico were comfortable letting Barcelona pass the ball safely outside their area. It only seemed like a matter of time before a misplaced ball let them hit the counter. Felix set the trap in the 23rd minute after Atletico recovered the ball, sending a pass through the center that Suarez used a touchdown to send Lemar to pass goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen.
Barcelona’s long periods of possession were just a mirage of control. Another stray bullet knocked Barcelona and Pique completely off balance at the mercy of Lemar and Suarez. Suarez had all the time and space he wanted to gauge Ter Stegen and get him past the keeper to seal the result a minute before half-time. Suarez did not celebrate his first goal against his former team, who let him go two years ago when he had to give up his expensive contract, a story that would repeat itself this summer with Messi.
“From our well-organized group, we found the space we needed and made the most of it,” Simeone said. “This game was no different from the previous ones, but Messi made a difference back then and he’s not here anymore.”