Koke’s early strike ends Atletico’s 40-year wait for semi-finals

Atletico Madrid 1 Barcelona 0 (Atletico Madrid win 2-1 on aggregate)

Koke’s early strike ends Atletico’s 40-year wait for semi-finals

Diego Simeone’s side roared out of the blocks at a heaving Estadio Vicente Calderon and the young Spanish midfielder put them ahead on just five minutes. But this was no smash and grab from underdogs Atletico though, as they hit the woodwork three more times, while Barca never really looked like scoring — with blaugrana talisman Lionel Messi a forlorn figure by the end.

“This team has no roof,” said Koke. “We are going to keep our fans dreaming."

The ground was nervous before kickoff, especially when it was confirmed top scorer Diego Costa was out with a thigh injury. But the 55,000 crowd was overjoyed when their side went ahead so early — with the Barca defence all over the place as Raul Garcia, Adrian Lopez and David Villa combined for Koke to hammer in from close range.

Diego Simeone’s side did not look to sit back and hold what they had, but continued to attack — cheered on by their raucous home fans — and Villa twice hit the woodwork in quick succession. Barca looked in shock, especially centre-backs Javier Mascherano and Marc Bartra, as the absence of Gerard Pique was felt.

With Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta (in his 500th Barca game) being completely outbattled by Atletico’s midfield of Koke, Tiago, Raul Garcia and captain Gabi, the visitors struggled to get any footing in the game.

Messi did miss a straightforward header from eight yards, and then sliced wide after Neymar — Barca best attacker on the night — had danced past three tackles down the left wing. Cesc Fabregas — who again looked lost in a false nine role — claimed a penalty just before the break, but English referee Howard Webb said no.

Barca started the second half better, and home keeper Thibaut Courtois rose to the big occasion when he denied Neymar after Xavi had sent the Brazilian racing clear. Messi missed again in the subsequent scramble, and the Calderon could breathe again.

As time passed, Atletico grew more and more confident, and substitute Diego Ribas, Gabi and Koke all had chances to make it 2-0 on the break. Gerardo Martino withdrew Fabregas and Iniesta for Alexis Sanchez and Pedro Rodriguez, but Neymar came closest to an equaliser, with his header flying inches wide.

Simeone turned on the final whistle to salute the fans, before being mobbed by his coaches and players. His Atletico team fully deserved to be through to a first European Cup semi-final since 1974 after out-fighting and out-thinking a below-par Barca side.

BARCELONA: Pinto 6; Alves 5, Mascherano 5, Bartra 5, Alba 6; Xavi 5, Busquets 5, Iniesta 6, Fabregas 4; Messi 4, Neymar 7.

Subs: Alexis 6, Pedro 6.

ATLETICO: Courtois 8; Juanfran 7, Godín 8, Miranda 8, Filipe 9; Koke 8, Tiago 8, Gabi 8, Raul Garcia 8; Adrian 8, Villa 8.

Subs: Diego 6, Rodriguez 6.

Referee: Howard Webb.

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