Messi defied by Oblak magic and roughhouse tactics in Camp Nou stalemate

By Sports Desk May 08, 2021

Jan Oblak saw it approaching like a heat-seeking missile and witnessed everyone in red and white clearing a path.

But it was only when Oblak tipped the narrative wide of his left-hand post that you sensed this would be Atletico Madrid's day, and perhaps it will still be their season.

On the day that Neymar ruled out a return to Barcelona by signing a new Paris Saint-Germain contract, the stage was set at Camp Nou for Lionel Messi, and my word he almost scored an unforgettable goal.

Oblak, however, had other ideas, and unlike his team-mates he found a way to defy the Barcelona captain without resorting to brazenly foul means.

It would have been one for the Messi showreel, a sensational charge infield from the right flank taking him at lightning speed through the massed ranks of the visitors and to the edge of the penalty area, before the Barca forward ripped a shot that was arrowing into the corner.

Oblak sprung into action and plunged to his left, Atletico indebted to their last line of defence. The Slovenian is the wall that few find cracks in, the player as vital to their success as anyone, the glovesman who has kept clean sheets in both LaLiga clashes with Barcelona this season and 18 shutouts in 35 league games so far.

In front of him, Atletico's players know their roles, even if in that one instance they could not get close to Messi.

Typically here, the tactic was to halt Messi by fair means or foul. Given he has scored a remarkable 21 league goals already in 2021, that seemed a reasonable ploy from Diego Simeone's troops.

Saul Niguez, Felipe and Koke were each booked for identikit fouls on the 33-year-old, recognising he was in full stride and rationalising that was an unhealthy state of affairs for Atletico. Geoffrey Kondogbia tripped Messi on the edge of the box in the 89th minute, but there would be no dramatic finale, the assailed Argentinian ripping a free-kick wide of the top left corner.

So it finished nil-nil and that might be interpreted as the dream outcome for Real Madrid, who sit third for now but would join Atletico on 77 points should they defeat fourth-placed Sevilla on Sunday.

For Barcelona, they are counting on their title rivals falling at the last now, with three rounds remaining. They would have gone top with a win here, but instead remain two points shy of Atletico.

Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente threatened in the first half for Atletico at Camp Nou, and the visitors had an abundance of the ball early in the second period too, but the chance of the game was probably the one that Barcelona substitute Ousmane Dembele headed over in the 85th minute, getting on the end of a cross that left-back Jordi Alba stood up to the far post but sending his effort far too high.

When the big chances fall to Dembele and Antoine Griezmann, playing like a competition winner against his former club here at times, there are days when that can spell terrible trouble for Barcelona.

Griezmann has now failed to score in the 12 LaLiga matches he has played against Atletico.

How Messi must wish he still had Luis Suarez by his side rather than on the opposing team.

Suarez, who was hurried out of Barcelona and welcomed with open arms by Atletico last September, was welcomed back to his old stamping ground with a big-screen video montage of some of his finest moments for the club.

He had a game-high four shots, three of which hit the target, and generally made a jolly old nuisance of himself without looking at his sharpest.

Messi was devastated to lose Suarez last year, but he has put that dismay behind him in recent months, with coach Ronald Koeman coaxing the best out of his talisman.

Barcelona now have 50 points from 20 LaLiga games in 2021, but their chaotic start to the season is catching up with them again. Too many points were dropped then, and for Barcelona to snatch the title this felt like a must-win game.

Koeman had an eagle's eye view, sitting high in the stands as he completed his touchline ban, unable to impose his presence and forced to settle for stalemate.

Like Oblak against the Messi missile, perhaps he saw it coming.

Related items

  • Everton 2-1 Arsenal: Stunning Gray strike snatches last-gasp victory Everton 2-1 Arsenal: Stunning Gray strike snatches last-gasp victory

    Demarai Gray's stoppage-time wonder goal saw Everton snatch a dramatic 2-1 victory over Arsenal and relieve the pressure on boss Rafael Benitez.

    Martin Odegaard put the Gunners in front just before half-time at Goodison Park with a neat volley from Kieran Tierney's cross.

    But despite twice being denied by VAR, Richarlison equalised with 10 minutes remaining, before Gray completed the turnaround with a stunning 25-yard effort in the second minute of stoppage time.

    Now without a win in four Premier League visits to Goodison, Mikel Arteta’s side missed the chance to return to fifth place in the table.

    Everton were unbeaten in their three previous home games against Arsenal in the Premier League and made a bright start to proceedings.

    Top scorer Gray and Abdoulaye Doucoure were off target, while Anthony Gordon had a shot blocked inside the box.

    The hosts thought they had taken a 44th-minute lead when Richarlison headed in Andros Townsend's cross, but VAR denied them as the Brazil international strayed marginally offside.

    The visitors capitalised in first-half stoppage time, Odegaard arriving late to neatly volley home Kieran Tierney's centre.

    Odegaard almost turned provider eight minutes after the restart, the former Real Madrid midfielder’s cross finding Gabriel Magalhaes, whose header was saved by Jordan Pickford.

    Everton and Richarlison were denied by VAR again four minutes later, the latter offside by a fraction once more as he received Doucoure's pass before slotting beyond Aaron Ramsdale.

    But their persistence paid off 10 minutes from time, Richarlison reacting quickest to head home the rebound after Ramsdale had done brilliantly to turn Gray’s initial effort onto the crossbar.

    Eddie Nketiah then squandered a glorious opportunity to snatch the points for Arsenal; the substitute somehow hitting the post with a close-range header.

    It proved costly as Everton snatched all three points in the second minute of added time, Gray embarking on a strong run before bending a wonderful 25-yard strike in off the post.

  • Root senses 'great opportunity' for England to end Gabba hoodoo in first Ashes Test Root senses 'great opportunity' for England to end Gabba hoodoo in first Ashes Test

    James Anderson and Stuart Broad were the only members of the England squad who were born when the tourists last won an Ashes Test at the Gabba.

    The hostile iconic Brisbane venue has been such a fortress for Australia that you have to go back to November 1986 for their previous Test defeat to England at the ground where the 2021-22 series starts on Wednesday.

    Yet India consigned Australia to a first Gabba loss in the longest format for over 32 years in January and England captain Joe Root is backing his side to end the hoodoo, despite a lack of match practice due to rain.

    The world's number one Test batter said: "[Victory] would absolutely set us up for the rest of the series and it's a great opportunity.

    "This group of players, not that long ago, went to Cape Town where we've not won a Test for a long period of time and off the back of a performance there won the series.

    "I feel like we have been able to do that around the world and this is an opportunity to do that here. Obviously conditions are slightly different to home, at this venue in particular with that extra bit of bounce, but we have prepared as well as we can for that. If we manage that well we should give a really good account of ourselves and start well."

    Ben Stokes' return gives England a massive lift as they attempt to wrestle back the urn, though they won't have the usual level of backing from the Barmy Army as usual due to coronavirus travel restrictions.

    The tourists were thrashed 4-0 in their last Ashes series Down Under in 2017-18 after the humiliation of a 2013-14 whitewash, so it is almost 10 years since their last Test win in Australia.

    Stats Perform looks at some of the key factors that will decide whether they can make it a miserable start to Pat Cummins' reign as Australia Test captain.

     

    Stoking the fires

    Stokes has not played for his country since July, but declared himself fit to face Australia after taking a break to prioritise his mental well-being and fully recover from a fractured finger.

    The all-rounder was England's player of the series in an Ashes series two years ago that ended in a 2-2 draw, scoring 441 runs at an average of 55.12 and producing one of the great innings at Headingley to pull off an unlikely victory.

    Vice-captain Stokes' return should add strength to the middle order they have been lacking and Root will be hoping he can do some damage in short, sharp bursts with the ball.

     

    Root must keep racking up the runs

    It has been an incredible 2021 for Root, who has scored six Test centuries - including one double-hundred in Sri Lanka and another in India.

    The skipper said this tour will define his captaincy and England will need him to keep racking up the runs if they are to return home with a surprise series win.

    Only five batsmen have scored more Test centuries in a year than Root's tally, with Mohammad Yousuf holding the record with a staggering nine in 2006.

     

    Lack of pace potency?

    Not for the first time in Ashes, a lack of pace could be a big issue for England and how they would love to have a fit Jofra Archer firing.

    Australian Troy Cooley was brought into the touring party as a consultant pace bowling coach and there is no doubting the quality in the England attack, led by James Anderson and Stuart Broad.

    Broad tormented Warner in the 2019 series, but the opener could be much more difficult to dismiss on home soil with a Kookaburra ball and returned to form in Australia's recent T20 World Cup triumph.

    Mark Wood is capable of doing damage but it remains to be seen how many Tests the injury-prone quick can play. Ollie Robinson could make a big impact in his first Ashes series and Chris Woakes can hit the sort of lengths to trouble batters in Australia.

  • 49ers' latest Seattle shocker should put quarterback change back on the table 49ers' latest Seattle shocker should put quarterback change back on the table

    The San Francisco 49ers were hoping to write a new chapter in their rivalry with the Seattle Seahawks.

    It ended up being the same old story.

    Riding a three-game winning streak that had propelled them into the thick of the NFC playoff race, the Niners were expected to prevail against a 3-8 Seahawks team at their lowest ebb.

    Instead, a mistake-strewn display allowed Seattle to launch what could prove the last stand of the Pete Carroll-Russell Wilson era, the Seahawks keeping the Niners out of the endzone at the end of a last-ditch 95-yard drive to preserve a 30-23 win, their 14th in 16 games against the 49ers since the beginning of the 2014 season.

    San Francisco could not have done more to help Seattle as the Niners missed a chance to move to 7-5 and cement their grip on a playoff berth.

    It was another frustrating day in an up-and-down campaign for a team that two seasons ago was the unquestioned elite of the NFC and, while the defeat was the product of a multitude of failures, the 49ers' rollercoaster 2021 is emblematic of a quarterback akin to a thrill ride many are eager to escape from.

    Talent across the board

    Examine the 49ers' roster and you will find top-level talent in almost every area.

    George Kittle's monstrous performance in Seattle was yet another illustration of the playmaking capability at their disposal.

    Racking up 189 yards and two touchdowns on nine catches, Kittle produced a big play on five of his 12 targets against the Seahawks, thriving as the focal point of the Niners' offense with Deebo Samuel out with a groin injury.

    It is Samuel who was the catalyst of that three-game winning run, the 2019 second-round pick compiling an Offensive Player of the Year resume with his exploits as both a wide receiver and a running back.

    With two rushing touchdowns in Week 12 against the Minnesota Vikings, Samuel became the first wide receiver in the Super Bowl era to score on the ground in three straight games. He is tied for the league lead with 14.9 scrimmage yards per touch and has 10 total touchdowns to his name.

    The first Niners wideout to surpass 1,000 receiving yards since 2014, Samuel leads all players at his position with 9.5 yards after catch per reception. Kittle is sixth among tight ends with 222 yards after catch, a tally padded by his incredible 48-yard catch and run for his second touchdown on Sunday.

    Between that duo and the resurgent Brandon Aiyuk, whose big-play rate of 39.7 per cent is ninth among wideouts with at least 25 targets, the 49ers possess three significant passing-game threats whose versatility is a constant problem for defenses.

    In addition to Samuel's exploits as a runner, the Niners' rushing attack also features arguably the top rookie running back in the league in Elijah Mitchell, whose 84.3 yards per game on the ground are the most among first-year tailbacks.

    That ground game is aided significantly by the play of the man most consider the league's elite left tackle in 2021. Trent Williams headed into Week 13 with a run-block win rate of 84.91 per cent and a pass-block win rate of 89.32 per cent that are both a long way above the respective league averages of 73.16 per cent and 78.60 per cent for the tackle position.

    On the other side of the trenches, defensive end Nick Bosa is third in the league in sacks with 12 and tied for the NFL lead with 16 tackles for loss, serving as the undoubted star of a defense that held Seattle to 4.8 yards per play and forced three turnovers despite the absence of All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner.

    Even without Samuel, the 49ers objectively had enough talent at their disposal to prevail and improve to 7-5, especially with a strong effort from the defense. Their failure to stretch the winning run to four games was not down to the injury to Samuel, but an infuriating lack of execution that has been a recurring problem in 2021.

    Turnovers, penalties a continuing plague

    While sections of the box score reflect the dominance the Niners enjoyed for long periods against Seattle, it is easy to identify the areas where it went wrong.

    They committed three turnovers, were called for 10 penalties and went three for 10 on third down, losing the time of possession battle against a team that ranks last in that category.

    It was a frustratingly familiar tale for the Niners, who lost to Seattle in Week 4 in strikingly similar fashion and have frequently been plagued by turnovers and penalties this season.

    The Niners are 23rd in the NFL with a turnover differential of minus 4, while they have given up the fourth-most penalty yardage per game in the NFL (65.25).

    Miscues on defense and on their special teams, which gave up a fake punt touchdown and lost a fumble as Travis Benjamin dropped the opening kickoff of the second half, contributed to the Niners continually gifting free plays and extra possessions to the Seahawks.

    Yet, beyond the obvious poor discipline in other areas, the 49ers' latest Seattle horror show was an encapsulation of the pitfalls of trusting your offense to a quarterback as volatile as Jimmy Garoppolo.

    Garoppolo's limitations again laid bare

    The Niners' winning streak had quieted most of the questions surrounding when Kyle Shanahan would bench Garoppolo for rookie third overall pick Trey Lance, San Francisco's starter having largely played well across each of those victories.

    And Garoppolo was, for the most part, accurate against the Seahawks. He delivered a well-thrown ball on 90 per cent of his pass attempts, trailing only Derek Carr and Gardner Minshew for Week 13.

    However, two of the Niners' three turnovers came as a result of brutal interceptions from Garoppolo. San Francisco's defense prevented the first, on which Garoppolo failed to spot the underneath coverage of Bobby Wagner and threw the ball right to the Seattle linebacker, from resulting in points.

    They could not do the same following the second, however, Garoppolo inexplicably trying to force a ball to Kittle despite double coverage when he had Trent Sherfield open on a corner route, with that pick followed by the ultimately decisive touchdown pass from Russell Wilson to Tyler Lockett.

    Intercepted eight times in 2021, Garoppolo has thrown a pickable pass on 14 of his 300 attempts, that ratio of 4.67 per cent inferior to the league average of 3.78 per cent.

    With a passer rating of 83.2 on passes of 21 air yards or more that is 23rd among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts of that distance, the book on Garoppolo remains the same. At his best, he can execute Kyle Shanahan's offense to a high level, but he consistently limits its potential by struggling to push the ball downfield, committing mind-boggling interceptions and failing to create outside the pocket.

    Exacerbating the frustration around Garoppolo's consistent inconsistency is that Lance, an athletic dual-threat quarterback and a more gifted downfield thrower, would theoretically remove those two limiting factors with which his more experienced team-mate continues to shackle the offense.

    The 49ers are not short of their problems elsewhere on the roster. The right side of the offensive line is a major issue and the lack of depth at cornerback has been frequently exposed.

    Yet those concerns are exacerbated when a team has a quarterback who cannot create for himself when the pocket breaks down and who regularly puts the defense under pressure with ill-advised throws that are all too often a part of his repertoire.

    Though the penalties and mistakes from his team-mates have been too common to simply label Sunday's performance in Seattle as an aberration, the more common thread in losses for the 49ers this season has concerned Garoppolo and the limitations to his game that have long since been apparent.

    With the stars they have on both sides of the ball, the 49ers should be much more than a 6-6 team scrapping for a Wild Card and coming up short against the worst Seahawks team of the Carroll-Wilson era. The likelihood is San Francisco will make the playoffs but, for them to have hope of and making any noise in the postseason, it would require a switch to a quarterback with the potential to be much more than Garoppolo.

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.