Dembele fired past Jan Oblak in the 22nd minute after good work from Pedri and Gavi to cap Barca’s lively start with a goal. Atletico woke up after falling behind and Jose Maria Gimenez came close with a header before Antoine Griezmann forced a fine save from goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Griezmann missed another chance after the break and Dembele wasted two openings to seal the game for Barca.
Both sides were reduced to 10 men in the 92nd minute when Ferran Torres and Stefan Savic were dismissed after coming together, while Barca still needed a stoppage-time goal-line clearance from Ronald Araujo to hold on for three valuable points on the road.
1. Barcelona take advantage of Real Madrid’s slip up in LaLiga
Barcelona returned from the World Cup break in sloppy form. They were held at home by Espanyol in LaLiga and needed extra time to beat third-division side Intercity in the Copa del Rey in midweek. However, Real Madrid‘s defeat at Villarreal on Saturday had lifted the mood around Barca and presented the chance to move three points clear at the top of LaLiga.
Barcelona took that chance, although it was not easy at times. They started well on Sunday and manager Xavi Hernandez’s decision to pick four midfielders instead of three to compensate for the loss of suspended striker Robert Lewandowski worked well early on. Pedri and Gavi linked to create chances for the forwards, with Ansu Fati missing two before Dembele finally broke the deadlock. Pedri then missed a good opening to double Barca’s lead after an Atletico goal.
The game took a turn from there, though, with Atletico in control and Barca under pressure. Despite a midfield-heavy line-up, Barca lost control of the middle of the pitch and it was only the defenders who kept them ahead. Andreas Christensen and Araujo were particularly good in the back, with Araujo’s late, late clearance off the line to deny Griezmann sealing the points.
Xavi said a win would not be decisive in the title race at this stage of the season, but the way the Barca players celebrated, collapsing on the rain-sodden pitch before going to their fans in the corner of the stadium, showed just how important this win was.
2. The Dembele Experience returns as he thrills and frustrates
You never know what you’re going to get from Dembele. It is what makes him so hard to defend against — and so frustrating to watch at times. Against Atletico, Barca fans were treated to the full Dembele Experience.
The French winger opened the scoring with his seventh goal of the season in all competitions — five of which have come in the league — with a fine right-footed finish across Oblak. He joins Atletico’s Griezmann as the only player in LaLiga with five or more goals and 5 or more assists this season. His pace then proved Barca’s best — and pretty much only — outlet in the second half as Atletico pushed for an equaliser.
But after twice doing the hard work, he dallied when it came to shooting and the chances disappeared. He is still lacking that extra bit of quality and consistency that Xavi says will make him one of the best players in the world. The potential is there, but Sunday was a reminder of what’s left to improve in his game to get there.
3. Atletico Madrid’s fight is to finish in the top four
Atletico will feel they were worth at least a point here. Gimenez’s header shaved the post, Griezmann was denied by Ter Stegen and Nahuel Molina dragged wide when he perhaps should have squared before Araujo’s late heroics. They ended the game with 20 shots to Barca’s 10 — five on target to Barca’s two — and that is the most shots for Atletico in a LaLiga loss in the last two seasons.
A win on a weekend when cross-city rivals Real Madrid also lost could have revived their flagging title hopes by moving them within eight points of top spot. Instead, defeat leaves them 14 behind Barca and still trailing Madrid by 11.
The title-winning Atletico sides led by Diego Simeone in the past may have seized that opportunity against an under-par Barcelona team. But, while they will lament missed chances and bad luck, the loss only served to show that Atletico’s fight this season is to finish in the top four and return to the Champions League next season.
Atletico: Oblak 6; Molina 7, Savic 6, Gimenez 6, Reinildo 6; Llorente 6, Koke 6, Barrios 6, Carrasco 7; Griezmann 6, Felix 6
Subs: Kondogbia 6, Morata 6, Correa 6, Lemar 6
Barcelona: Ter Stegen 8; Kounde 6, Araujo 9, Christensen 8, Balde 6: Busquets 5, De Jong 5, Gavi 6, Pedri 6; Dembele 7, Ansu 5
Subs: Torres 6, Kessie 6, Raphinha 6, Roberto 6, Alonso 6
Best and worst performers
BEST: Ronald Araujo, Barcelona
For that late clearance alone, Araujo deserves it, although Christensen was also brilliant.
WORST: Ansu Fati, Barcelona
Handed the unenviable task of replacing Lewandowski and came up short. The ball didn’t stick when it reached him and he still looks short of match sharpness after his injury problems.
Highlights and notable moments
The only goal of the match was scored by Ousmane Dembele, and it came from a lovely bit of teamwork by Barcelona.
Pedri dribbled through traffic toward the box, poked the ball toward Gavi, who swept it aside for Dembele, and the French winger tucked his shot inside the far post.
DEMBELE GIVES BARCELONA THE LEAD 😤
A beautiful team goal 🤩 pic.twitter.com/QE9jLzPhiY
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) January 8, 2023
After the match: What the players and managers said
Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez on playing with four midfielders: “I liked the first half an hour. The game was under control. The goal came from creating a numerical advantage through the middle. These are three golden points. We knew how to suffer. It’s important to have kept a clean sheet. Without playing that well, we got the three points. It was a tough game but a big win. It’s not just three points, it’s a huge morale boost. I am proud of the team. We have made a statement that we are candidates to win the league.”
Xavi on not having Lewandowski: “It’s important to win without Lewandowski, but he’s a key part of the team. We missed him in terms of pressing high. Ferran did well when he came on, but we missed him.”
Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets on moving up on the LaLiga table: “We knew Madrid had slipped up at Villarreal and it was an opportunity we had to take — and we did. We know how tough it is to come here, but we got ourselves in front and Pedri had the chance to score a second. They pressed after and didn’t let us out. We had more control in the second half and even though we had to summer, we picked up three really important points.”
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)
Ousmane Dembélé scored in consecutive club matches for the first time since March-April 2021, and he joins Antoine Griezmann as one of the two only players in LaLiga with 5+ goals and 5+ assists this season.
Gavi recorded his second assist this LaLiga season, and Barcelona are the only team in Europe’s top five leagues this season with multiple players age 18 or younger with multiple assists (Alejandro Balde & Gavi).
Barcelona have conceded the least amount of goals in Europe’s top 5 leagues this season (six), ahead of Juventus (seven).
Atletico Madrid: Los Colchoneros head to Almería in LaLiga next week on Sunday, Jan. 15 (watch live on ESPN+ at 10:15 a.m. ET).
Barcelona: The Blaugrana next have a date in the Spanish Supercopa, visiting Real Betis on Thursday, Jan. 12 (stream live on ESPN at 2 p.m. ET). Then, Barca head to Ceuta for the Copa del Rey on Wednesday, Jan. 18 with the kickoff time not yet set. Barca finally return to LaLiga action on Sunday, Jan. 22 when they host Getafe.