Messi & Di Maria give Barcelona & Madrid hope of Champions League comebacks

The Catalans will have to wait for the title, but the Argentine’s stunning goal and his compatriot’s derby winner give the two teams reasons to believe in Europe this week

By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer

There may be reason to believe after all. On a night when their Liga celebrations were placed on hold, Barcelona were buoyed by the return of Lionel Messi at his brilliant best in the 2-2 draw at Athletic Bilbao, while Real Madrid edged out Atletico in the derby thanks to the intervention of another Argentine: Angel Di Maria. Hope and optimism for the Spanish sides, then, as they turn their thoughts to Champions League comebacks this week.

In order to be crowned champions on Saturday, Barca needed to beat Athletic in the last fixture between the two teams at the old San Mames and hope Madrid lost the derby to Atletico for the first time since 1999. But in the end, the Catalans claimed only a point in Bilbao as Ander Herrera hit a late leveller and Jose Mourinho’s men continued their capital control with a 2-1 win at the Vicente Calderon. So the Catalan Cava remains on ice for at least another week. First, however it’s all about Europe once again.

Atletico had failed to beat city rivals Real since 1999, but there was real optimism ahead of this match.

Diego Simeone’s side have been superb at home this term and they were up against a Madrid team without the injured Cristiano Ronaldo, while many more first-team footballers were also rested ahead of Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final second leg at home to Borussia Dortmund.

Nevertheless, it was the same old story as a Juanfran own goal and an Angel Di Maria strike gave Madrid a 2-1 win after Radamel Falcao’s early header.

Jose Mourinho has now won eight of eight derby clashes since moving to Madrid in the summer of 2010, but Simeone remains optimistic ahead of the teams’ meeting in the Copa del Rey final next month. “I hope we can win the most important one of all,” he said.

The best news for Barca is the return to form and fitness of Messi. The Argentine completely changed the game after coming on as a second-half substitute (with his side 1-0 down) and equalising with a wonder goal as he sidestepped several players before hitting a low drive into the bottom corner from the edge of the box. Before his introduction, there had been a real lack of imagination in the Blaugrana attack. Poor defending had seen Tito Vilanova’s team fall behind and hardly seemed to augur well for the epic encounter against Bayern on Wednesday, when the Catalans will attempt to overturn a 4-0 deficit at Camp Nou in the second-leg of their semi-final.

But with Messi there is always hope. “The better shape Leo is in, the greater chance we will have of advancing on Wednesday,” assistant Jordi Roura told the press after the game.

And he was not the only one believing in a Catalan comeback. “We will turn it around for sure,” Thiago predicted after the game. “We are confident. We are going to go for it. We have footballers of the highest level who have the necessary ambition and experience.” And Jordi Alba added: “We have to believe – Messi’s return is the best possible news.”

Madrid, meanwhile, were boosted by a comeback at Atletico with a team made up largely of fringe players ahead of their tough test against Borussia Dortmund, when they will look to overturn a 4-1 deficit from the first  leg in Germany.

Di Maria had been given permission by Mourinho to return to Spain for the premature birth of his daughter last week and arrived back to Germany just in time to face Dortmund, albeit having hardly slept. He was therefore left on the bench until the second half and Madrid looked anything but comfortable in a 4-1-4-1 formation which lacked width in the Argentine’s absence.
With Cristiano Ronaldo missing through injury as Madrid keep their star man in cotton wool until Tuesday, Di Maria provided the inspiration against Atleti. The former Benfica winger hit the free kick which was diverted into his own net by Juanfran to level at 1-1 and later netted the winner with a lovely low finish angled past Thibaut Courtois. On that form, he should start at the Bernabeu versus BVB.

The Argentine, who dedicated the goal to his new-born daughter, was optimistic ahead of Madrid’s European date with destiny. “We will go out and give everything on Tuesday,” he said. “We won’t give up on anything.”

“We fought together and worked with humility, we worked as a team and the win gives us motivation,” assistant Aitor Karanka explained afterwards. “Now will we think about Borussia Dortmund.”

Madrid also posted a video on their website on Saturday in which the team’s top players, including Ronaldo, Alonso and Casillas, called for the support of the club’s fans on Tuesday, with the message: “You are our strength.” And club legend Emilio Butragueno believes the fans will respond. “They are smart; they will get behind the team – it’s one of the club’s most important games in the last 10 years,” he said.

So the momentum is building for both Barca and Madrid. And thanks largely to Messi and Di Maria, optimism returned for the Spanish sides on Saturday. Bayern and BVB beware.

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