BARCELONA: Atletico Madrid have the upper hand heading into the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final against Barcelona after holding on for a 1-1 draw at the Camp Nou on Tuesday.
Diego Ribas, who had come on as a first-half substitute for the injured Diego Costa, fired the visitors in front with a wonder strike from long range 11 minutes into the second half.
However, Barca responded like a side looking to make their seventh consecutive Champions League semi-final and were level when Neymar swept home Andres Iniesta’s pass 19 minutes from time.
A fourth draw in as many games between the sides this season leaves the tie delicately poised for the return at the Vicente Calderon next Wednesday, April 9.
“It is what we expected beforehand, Atletico play with great intensity in every game,” Barca midfielder Xavi Hernandez told TVE.
“Their goal was a shame for us, it was a great goal. I think we played very well and perhaps had more chances, but they played well too.
“It was difficult for us to create many opportunities. We need to try and score there, but it is not a good result for us.”
However, Atletico midfielder Tiago insisted that Barca remain favourites to progress.
“We have worked very hard, Barca had a lot of the ball. They have quality and make you work, but we are comfortable with working hard. We played well and the result is great.
“Barca are still the favourites, but we have a game at home and we will have our chances. We can dream and we will give everything at the Calderon.”
Atletico’s David Villa had the best chance of the first half after just five minutes as the ball fell to him inside the area after an errant clearance from Jose Manuel Pinto, but the former Barca striker’s effort flew just past the post. A minute later Lionel Messi had his first opening as he was upended by Gabi on the edge of the area, but the Argentine dumped the resulting free-kick into the wall.
Barca then suffered an injury blow as Gerard Pique was forced off after failing to recover from an awkward fall as he challenged for an aerial ball with Costa.
Neymar had Barca’s first effort on goal on 24 minutes as Thibaut Courtois easily gathered the Brazilian’s weak headed effort.
The Atletico defence had to be at their best moments later, though, as brilliant play from Messi saw the Argentine fed Iniesta inside the area and his shot was blocked by Diego Godin.
It was the visitors who were then disrupted by injury to a key player as Costa hobbled off with a pulled hamstring that will almost certainly also rule him out of the return leg next week.
However, even without their top scorer, Atletico nearly went in ahead at the break as Villa this time found the target with a low drive that was beaten away by Pinto low to his left.
The pace of the game rose at the beginning of the second period and despite Barca’s early dominance of possession, it was Atletico who took the lead in spectacular fashion as Diego thundered a shot high into Pinto’s top left-hand corner from fully 30 yards.
Barca laid seige to the Atletico goal in a bid to get back on level terms as Courtois turned Sergio Busquets’ well-struck volley behind before Messi was unable to direct Dani Alves’ volleyed cross goalwards.
Neymar did bring the hosts level on 71 minutes as his perfectly timed run was matched by Iniesta’s through ball and the Brazilian slotted the ball past Courtois first time.
With the volume of the Camp Nou raised by the equaliser, Barca had all the momentum in the final stages and Courtois had to make a fine low save to his left to meet a curling effort from Iniesta and then turn a Messi free-kick behind. However, Barca couldn’t find a winner and will travel to Madrid needing to score at least once to reach the last four once more. REUTERS