All week the build-up to Barcelona’s visit to Atletico Madrid on Saturday night had centred on the difficult political situation in Spain, with a push towards independence in Catalonia, and the central authorities in the capital pushing back.
But in the end politics took a back seat over the 90 minutes, with Atletico’s first half upper hand getting its reward in Saul Niguez’s opening goal, and Barca’s dominance after the break finally seeing Luis Suarez head a deserved equaliser late on.
Outside Atletico’s new Wanda Metropolitano home pre-game there were few Barca jerseys to be seen, and enterprising stallholders were selling scarves with the message: ‘This is Spain, if you don’t like it you can leave’.
There were also more Spanish flags than usual held aloft inside the still not quite finished stadium before kick-off, and a few chants of ‘Viva Espana’ from the right-wing ‘Frente Atletico’ ultras.
But fears of clashes or violent incidents proved unfounded - especially as only 200 tickets were made available for travelling fans.
Straight from the kick off Gerard Pique, whose recent calls for political dialogue have been rejected by conservative Spaniards, was whistled every time he touched the ball. However, the Barca centre-back was much more bothered by the pace and movement of Atletico forward Antoine Griezmann, who had three early chances to score.
As the game went on political thoughts gradually faded away. The home fans were enthused by Saul’s superb 20-yard strike which put their team in front midway through the first half.
With Atletico coach Diego Simeone tactically on top, and blaugrana talisman Lionel Messi affected by his midweek exertions for Argentina, the Wanda seemed set for its first big famous night to remember.
But Barca’s new boss Ernesto Valverde used his bench much better, and substitute Sergi Roberto provided the cross from which Suarez equalised with just eight minutes remaining.
Local reporters trying to make a story of Suarez ‘shushing’ the home crowd during his goal celebration were dismissed by Valverde afterwards.
“I did not really see what he did, but my players are not unsportsmanlike,” he said. “I loved the atmosphere.” Simeone also steered clear of any controversy when asked about the atmosphere. “The stadium was marvellous,” the Argentine said.
“It was a brilliant night of football, between two teams with different styles of play.”
In truth neither team looked the finished article at this early stage of the season, and neither coach would have been especially delighted with the result. Simeone has still not beaten Barca in La Liga during his six years in the job, gaining just four points from 12 games.
Meanwhile, former Valencia and Athletic Bilbao coach Valverde has yet to come out on top against ‘El Cholo’ in 12 meetings across his managerial career.
The result means Barca’s 100% record is gone, but they remain in control of the title race. Last year’s champions Real Madrid have stumbled in the early weeks but Zinedine Zidane’s side are now up to second, five points behind the leaders, after Cristiano Ronaldo’s first La Liga goal of 2017/18 brought a 2-1 win at Getafe earlier on Saturday. Atletico sit third a further point back.
Off the pitch things remain very difficult to predict, with both the football and political authorities sticking to a firm position that Barca must leave La Liga if Catalonia breaks away from Spain. But such radical possibilities seemed very far away at the Wanda last Saturday.
Sevilla’s title chances took a blow when they were beaten 1-0 at Athletic Bilbao, with midfielder Mikel Vesga scoring the only goal, and the Andalusians’ miserable record at San Mames stretching to eight consecutive defeats.
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