Barcelona and Atletico Madrid played out a tense goalless draw at the Camp Nou that suits neither side, handing the advantage to Real Madrid in an engrossing La Liga title race.
With very little to separate the two sides, Atletico came closest to finding the net during the opening period as Luis Suarez – on his return to his former club – was denied from close range.
Ousmane Dembele missed a glorious chance when he headed wide at the far post as Barcelona took control of the second period before Lionel Messi’s free-kick veered inches wide.
The result means Atletico remain in top spot on 77 points, with Barcelona leapfrogging Real Madrid into second place on 75 points. Real – on 74 points – can move top if they beat Sevilla on Sunday by virtue of their superior head-to-head record with Atletico.
Barcelona: Ter Stegen (8), Dest (7), Pique (7), Lenglet (7), Mingueza (6), Alba (6), De Jong (6), Busquets (n/a), Pedri (6), Messi (7), Griezmann (5).
Subs: Araujo (7), Dembele (5), Roberto (6).
Atletico Madrid: Oblak (7), Trippier (6), Savic (6), Felipe (6), Hermoso (7); Carrasco (8), Koke (7), Llorente (6), Lemar (n/a), Correa (7), Suarez (7).
Subs: Kondogbia (6), Saul (5), Felix (6).
Man of the match: Yannick Carrasco.
Advantage Real in La Liga title race
Atletico went into the game two points clear of Barcelona at the summit, with Real Madrid separating the two sides in second place ahead of their game with Sevilla on Sunday.
Preparations for the hosts were dealt a blow in midweek when it was confirmed head coach Ronald Koeman would be absent from the touchline after the Spanish football federation rejected the club’s appeal against a touchline ban. Koeman was sent off in his side’s 2-1 home defeat by Granada on April 29 for saying “what a character” to the fourth official after being warned about his conduct.
In his absence, assistant manager Alfred Schreuder took charge – but Atletico carved open the better chances of a goalless first half. They were not aided by the early withdrawal of Thomas Lemar through a muscle injury, shortly after the midfielder had tested Marc-Andre ter Stegen from just inside the box.
Suarez was determined to mark his return to his former club in style, with his free-kick comfortably saved before Clement Lenglet produced a vital last-ditch block to deny Angel Correa from Mario Hermoso’s cross.
Barcelona were dealt a blow when Sergio Busquets was forced off with a head injury after half an hour, and Atletico were growing in confidence as Ter Stegen was again drawn into action to deny Marcos Llorente’s snap shot from another Carrasco delivery.
The Belgian elected to try his luck next as he again turned Oscar Mingueza inside-out but Ter Stegen got down well to save his shot before reacting quickly to the rebound to deny Suarez from close range.
Barcelona had threatened fleetingly and were again indebted to Lionel Messi for inspiration as he glided past Saul Niguez and Felipe on a trademark slaloming run before his reversed shot was tipped around the post by Jan Oblak.
Following the restart, Atletico continued to dominate possession, but the hosts were more compact as Suarez lashed a speculative shot wide.
Messi turned chief creator as his free-kick was headed over on the stretch by Lenglet, with Ronald Araujo in a far better place to attack the ball behind him. The hosts came close to breaking the deadlock when Messi flicked Jordi Alba’s cross into the path of Ilaix Moriba but Hermoso made a crucial block.
Barcelona were enjoying a strong phase of dominance as Gerard Pique glanced the resulting short corner from Messi into the gloves of Oblak, who was then in the right place to tip a free-kick around the post from the Argentine.
Atletico had rarely threatened their opponents during the second period as Joao Felix was introduced to little effect by Diego Simone, but there was further frustration for the hosts as Araujo saw his effort from Alba’s cross ruled out for a clear offside.
Barcelona were desperately in need of a goal, and they very nearly found the elusive winner when Moriba collected Messi’s pass to bring in Alba down the left flank, and the full-back’s deep cross was measured perfectly into the path of the substitute Dembele but he inexplicably headed over.
The game fizzled out without further major incident, and it is a result that suits Real Madrid – who know they will be crowned La Liga champions if they win their remaining four games.
“We’re still in the mix. La Liga’s still wide open, three games is a lot even if we know it’s not in our hands anymore,” Barca defender Pique said. “Anything can happen. I’d like to know if any other side in La Liga has won four in a row, it’s only something we’ve done.
“If we win our remaining three matches, I think we’ll win the league. We’re going to fight until the end, even if we haven’t done what we needed.”
Simeone: I won’t watch Real vs Sevilla
Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone said he would not watch Real Madrid’s La Liga game with Sevilla on Sunday.
“I’m not watching the (other teams’) games. I don’t enjoy it so I’d prefer not to watch,” he told a post-match news conference.
“I don’t think it will go any differently if I do watch it, so I’ll have dinner with my family and get ready for Monday’s session and focus on playing a good game against Real Sociedad on Wednesday. It’s a great season, where four sides are looking for the best possible ending.
“The game transpired as we wanted it to. We attacked well through pressing them and recovering the ball. We were great in the first half, and the second was more even.”
Atletico keeper Jan Oblak acknowledged that his side are no longer in control of the outcome this season, but he pointed out that having a game in hand is not always a good thing.
“It’s true, we don’t have things in our own hands, but Real and Sevilla have to play four games, whereas we have three.
“It’ll be tough to the end for everyone. There’s a lot of games with a lot to play for, all tough matches, and whoever comes through this period strongest will win La Liga.”
Barcelona travel to face Levante in La Liga on Tuesday; kick-off is at 9pm. Meanwhile, Atletico Madrid host Real Sociedad on Wednesday at 9pm.