MADRID (AFP) – Players and coaches of both Atletico Madrid and Barcelona hailed the atmosphere at Atletico’s Wanda Metropolitano on Saturday as the thrills of a 1-1 draw drowned out fears the match would be overshadowed by political tension sweeping across Spain.
Barca’s previous match was played behind closed doors as a protest to a violent police crackdown on an independence referendum in Catalonia, deemed illegal by the Spanish government, on October 1.
The Catalan giants’ visit to the Spanish capital was marked by a wash of Spanish flags and chants of “Viva Espana”, but fans at the 68,000 capacity were more enthralled by action on the field.
Luis Suarez salvaged a point for Barca nine minutes from time to cancel out Saul Niguez’s stunning first-half strike for Atletico.
“It was a great game, in a great atmosphere, in a great stadium and we take it as a good point despite the fact we wanted to win,” said Barca coach Ernesto Valverde.
“What we like is playing and enjoying ourselves in a spectacular atmosphere like today,” added Barca captain Andres Iniesta, who has called for dialogue between politicians on both sides of the independence debate.
“We played very well against a great team and what counts is that football is a spectacle.”
Atletico only moved into the Metropolitano last month, but the stadium, which will host next season’s Champions League final, has quickly received rave reviews.
“The stadium was marvellous,” said Atletico boss Diego Simeone. “It was a great night of football for everyone with two great teams.”
Both Simeone and Valverde also agreed that Lionel Messi was the star of the show once more, despite failing to add to his 17 goals this season for club and country.
Messi only arrived back in Barcelona late on Thursday after rescuing Argentina’s floundering World Cup qualifying campaign with a stunning hat-trick in the altitude of Quito, Ecuador on Tuesday to ensure his presence at next year’s showpiece in Russia.
“Evidently that journey didn’t tire him out too much,” said a smiling Simeone.
“Messi was extraordinary. Every time the ball went through him there was danger.”
Messi hit the post and saw a free-kick saved by Jan Oblak with the last kick of the game as Valverde’s men had to settle for a point after opening their league campaign with seven straight wins.
“More than for the journey, he was more worn out from the tension accumulated in the games, but Leo always responds and we know the respect he demands from the opposition,” added Valverde.
“When he gets the ball there is always the sensation anything can happen.”
Real Madrid closed to within five points of Barca with victory at Getafe earlier on Saturday, but Valverde was still content with Barca’s response to going behind.
“We go away with a positive feeling. We have to value the point against a great opponent, who went in front, and when Atletico go in front they manage that advantage well.
“Their tight defensive lines near their area made it difficult in the first half.
“In the second, we created chances with more clarity and that push and spirit in the second half got us a