Barcelona gave up more ground to Real Madrid in La Liga’s title race on Tuesday after being held to a 2-2 draw at home to third-placed Atletico Madrid as a late penalty from Saul Niguez cancelled out Lionel Messi’s 700th career goal.
The draw meant the Catalans stayed second in the standings on 70 points and leaders Real Madrid, who have 71, will go four points clear at the top with five games left if they beat Getafe at home on Thursday.
Barca went ahead at an empty Camp Nou in the 11th minute when Atletico striker Diego Costa knocked Messi’s delivery from a corner into his own net. Saul levelled soon after from the spot after the referee ordered a re-take when Costa’s initial penalty was saved by Marc-Andre ter Stegen who had strayed from his line.
Barcelona then earned a penalty soon after the interval which Argentine Messi coolly converted for a remarkable 700th strike for club and country, only for Saul to strike again from the spot in the 62nd to earn a share of the points.
“It’s a real shame and the league title is looking much harder for us with each game,” said Barca coach Quique Setien, whose side have drawn three of their six games since the campaign resumed. “Dropping these points in reality pushes us further away from the title but we have to keep on working hard.”
“We were leaders and in a perfect situation before the break and I think it’s been difficult for us after the break. Some games we’ve played better, others we haven’t, but dropping points today and at the weekend means we are a little bit further away from our goal which is to retain the title.”
Antoine Griezmann, who Barcelona signed for 120 million euros, must have been relishing the match with his former club, but he was not called upon until added time. The World Cup winning forward has not started in three of Barca’s six games since returning to action, missing the crucial trips to Sevilla and Celta Vigo which also ended in draws.
But perhaps worst of all for him was coach Quique Setien’s declaration that bringing on Griezmann earlier would not have helped his side.
“It’s true that bringing him on for such little time is tough for a player of his level but the circumstances obliged me to do that. The other option was not to bring him on at all,” said Setien. “The players on the pitch were playing well and it wasn’t easy to find a place for him without destabilising the team. I don’t normally make late changes but I thought a player like him could win the game with one play.”
Griezmann, who is Barca’s second most expensive player of all time, has only scored one league goal since Setien became manager in January. He netted seven times under previous coach Ernesto Valverde.
“Tomorrow I’ll speak with him. I won’t apologise to him but I understand he might feel bad and I also feel bad for him because he’s a great player and a great person,” added Setien.
Messi got his 700th goal in style, chipping the goalkeeper from the penalty spot and he celebrated duly, facing the camera directly and gesturing. The Argentine is now part of an elite club. Only Romario, Gerd Muller, Pele, Josef Bican, Ferenc Puskas and Cristiano Ronaldo have reached 700 career goals.
Discussing Messi — who has scored 630 goals for Barca and 70 for Argentina — Setien said: “I suppose that another 700 goals will not be scored by Leo, but he will continue to score. You don’t know what the ceiling is for a player of this type.”