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Barça held 2-2 by Atletico Madrid, suffer major blow to LaLiga title hopes

Barcelona, Jun 30 (efe-epa).- Two-time defending champion FC Barcelona sustained a fresh blow to their LaLiga title hopes in a 2-2 draw here Tuesday against Atletico Madrid, a result that leaves their arch-rival, Real Madrid, in a commanding late-season position.

This behind-closed-doors match-up at Camp Nou featured plenty of thrilling action on the pitch from the outset, with both squads playing at a frenetic pace despite the lack of fan presence inside Europe’s largest stadium.

Atleti threatened in the opening minutes on a dangerous free kick into the area by Yannick Carrasco that would have led to a sure goal had either Diego Costa or Jose Gimenez been able to connect on the other end.

The hosts hit back with a low blast off the foot of Ivan Rakitic that tested Atleti net minder Jan Oblak and then opened the scoring in the 11th minute when a corner kick by Lionel Messi led to an own-goal off the leg of a befuddled Costa.

Atletico Madrid only needed eight minutes to equalize, a score that finally came after a controversial referee decision.

Carrasco set up the goal when he was taken down in the penalty box by Arturo Vidal, although Costa’s tough night continued when his poorly placed spot kick was stopped by Barcelona goalie Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Diego Simeone’s men, however, then caught a big break when a VAR review found that Ter Stegen had moved too soon and a second penalty try was awarded.

After Barça’s players vented their frustration, Saul Ñiguez stepped to the mark and got the ball past the German keeper to make the score 1-1 in the 19th minute.

Messi then made his presence felt midway through an action-packed first half, nearly scoring his 700th career goal in the 22nd minute on a curling left-footed shot from the edge of the box that appeared to graze the outside of the far post.

The Argentine great later narrowly missed out on a couple of other attempts, including a free-kick opportunity that Oblak expertly tipped over the crossbar for a corner after the ball had deflected off one of his defenders.

But Messi finally scored his milestone goal – and ended a three-game scoring drought – by converting a penalty attempt Panenka style in the 50th minute, lobbing the ball into the net as Oblak dove to the left.

Despite that rare achievement, the night would end in frustration for FC Barcelona when the referee awarded yet another penalty for a play in which Nelson Semedo brought down Carrasco in the area.

Even in slow-motion replays, it was difficult to see the contact between the Portuguese right-back’s knee and the Belgian winger’s back foot as the two were running in full stride toward the Barça goal.

Saul once again did the honors and sneaked his shot into the goal off of Ter Stegen’s fingertips in the 62nd minute.

Plenty of time remained on the clock, but a shot by Vidal in the 71st minute barely missed the mark and Antoine Griezmann did not make a difference against his former team after replacing the Chilean in the 90th minute.

Atletico had the best chance to come away with three points, but a Barcelona defender was able to clear away a pass from Thomas Lemar to Joao Felix in second-half injury time.

Afterward, Barcelona’s head coach said the disappointing result – the Catalans’ third draw in their last four games – leaves the club in a difficult position with just five games remaining in the LaLiga season.

“It’s a shame because it’s getting more and more complicated for us. Not getting (all three points) means we’re further away from the title, but we need to keep working,” Quique Setien said.

Second-place Barça currently have 70 points, while Spanish league-leading Real Madrid have 71 points and a game in hand and can stretch their lead to four points with a home win over Getafe on Thursday.

Atletico Madrid are a distant third with 59 points but still have virtually wrapped up a spot in next season’s Champions League. EFE-EPA

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