Two special goals lit up the Camp Nou on Tuesday as Barcelona, aiming to reach the UEFA Champions League semi-finals for the seventh year in a row, shared a 1-1 draw with Spanish rivals Atletico Madrid.
Brazilian substitute Diego fired an unstoppable bullet of a long-range shot into the top corner of the net to open the scoring for La Liga leaders Atletico in the 56th minute of the quarter-final first leg.
Andres Iniesta then spotted a gap in the visiting defense 15 minutes later and threaded the perfect through-ball for Diego’s compatriot Neymar to beat goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois with a curling right-foot effort from a tight angle.
“We got a good result, but the tie is still open,” Atletico coach Diego Simeone told a press conference. “It was all down to enormous work from the team. It was a game of different styles and each team fights with the armory they have. Barca played their usual way with a lot of possession, moving the ball around, one against ones. I like to play against Barca because you learn and you improve.”
Atletico lost talismanic striker Diego Costa to injury early on, but still had the better chances in the first half through Barca old boy David Villa.
Pinto was brought in as the only change to the Barcelona side that defeated Manchester City in the previous round, coming in for injured Victor Valdes, and he put them in trouble in the opening minutes.
The goalkeeper’s clearance went straight to Arda Turan and he found Villa, who fired wide in front of goal.
It got worse for the hosts when centerback Gerard Pique went off with a back problem after being injured in a challenge with Costa.
Barca gradually worked their way into the game and an Iniesta strike was blocked by Diego Godin, before Costa had to leave the field with what appeared to be a hamstring injury.
Lionel Messi had a header comfortably saved by Courtois and Neymar shot over the bar, but Atletico finished the first half stronger and this time Pinto came to the hosts’ rescue, diving to deny Villa.
Diego’s blistering shot from distance sparked Barca into action and their pressure finally paid off with Neymar’s spectacular strike.
“As with any player trying to improve their level, the goal will boost Neymar’s morale,” Barca coach Gerardo Martino said. “He played well, as did the team. I was happy with the style and the way we played. We didn’t get the result we wanted, but I think that if we repeated that game with the chances that we had it could be very different.”
The second leg at the Vicente Calderon is next Wednesday and Courtois said the home crowd could be a big help to Atletico.
“We scored a brilliant goal through Diego and then we defended very well,” said the Belgian goalkeeper, who is on loan from Chelsea. “A 1-1 draw is a good result and at the Calderon I think anything is possible. With our fans behind us it’s like having an extra player and hopefully we can put on a good performance.”
Barcelona captain Xavi believed Atletico were lucky to escape with a draw.
“We deserved to win,” Xavi said. “We had more scoring chances, but they worked very hard in defense and it was very difficult for us to find a way through.”