Barcelona Trumps Atlético Madrid In La Liga’s Most Money-Centered Game

The first major Spanish clash of 2023, and one of La Liga’s richest, ended in victory for Barcelona. Away to Atlético Madrid, coach Xavi’s men climbed three points clear of Real Madrid at the top of the table thanks to Ousmane Dembélé’s first-half goal at the Estadio Metropolitano in the Spanish capital—sufficient to settle an unsurprisingly feisty encounter.

Buoyed by nemesis Real showing unusual signs of weakness in a 2-1 loss at Villarreal, this was the moment for Barcelona’s most valuable faces—including young Gavi, Pedri, and Ansu Fati—to stamp their authority in the title race, with leading marksman Robert Lewandowski out of action. For Atlético, clinging onto any remaining elite credentials, its flailing squad needed to make a statement with Champions League qualification vital to stay among the best sides in Europe.

Like Barcelona, Atlético is in heavy debt. It’s likely in the hundreds of millions alongside its opponent’s, whose one-time arrears traversed the €1 billion ($1.1 billion) mark but seem to be easing due to better results on the field and unlocking fresh revenue streams off it. Atlético does have one trump card in €126 million ($135 million) gamble João Félix, however—the sought-after striker it could soon cash in on to rebuild a winning enterprise. That ultimate aim may also mean selling off club ownership shares, not quite in the same way as member-run Barcelona, somewhere down the line.

Despite the imbalances and Atletico’s on-field issues this season, both remain pretty safe inside La Liga’s ‘big three’ bracket, with high flyers Real Sociedad, Real Betis, Villarreal, and others still facing some ground to make up. Atlético and Barcelona receive some of the highest audiovisual revenue and healthiest spending allocations from La Liga while seating almost 170,000 paying fans on matchdays combined. Each known to hemorrhage and earn considerable sums, Atlético versus Barcelona arguably makes for Spanish soccer’s most money-focused fixture—and that provided part of the backdrop for this intriguing clash.

It began more promisingly for Barcelona, establishing control from deep and fluidity going forward. Atlético only threatened Marc André ter Stegen’s goal in fits and starts through rising talent Pablo Barrios and the tireless Marcos Llorente on one occasion.

Barcelona made its ascendancy count clinically. Pedri and Gavi combined excellently before Dembélé—coming into his own and reinvigorating his Barcelona career under Xavi—finished sharply into the far corner after 22 minutes to demonstrate the side’s goalscoring credentials without Lewandowski in the lineup. How long that lasts is unknown and will be pivotal in the race for silverware.

Barcelona didn’t cruise over the line here. And two red cards at the close, one for Atlético’s Stefan Savic and the other for Ferran Torres, leaves Xavi with one player fewer before the next test against Getafe on January 22. As expected in the second period, Atlético peppered the Barcelona goal. But the visiting side blocked and dealt with everything to reach 41 points and continue its outstanding defensive record this campaign, where it has only conceded six times in La Liga. If not the smoothest of nights, it was still a job well done for the Catalans.

It was not El Clásico, which typically gathers the highest-valued squads in Spain and unrivaled viewing figures in club soccer globally. But with a coveted title attainable for the Blaugrana and the status and financial rewards that Champions League soccer brings at stake for Atlético—this was an occasion to speed up or slow down momentum going into the definitive second half of La Liga this 2023 and impact each club’s economic standing significantly. Perhaps more so than any Clásico.

A league trophy would boost Barcelona’s status and finances immeasurably. For Atlético—hitting its head against the wall under coach Diego Simeone—there is plenty of work to do to rediscover its best self.