FC Barcelona entertain Atletico Madrid tomorrow at the Camp Nou in what promises to be the biggest match of the season so far. Tito Vilanova’s team sit top of La Liga with a six point lead over Diego Simeone’s rejuvenated Atleti, and one could argue that a Blaugrana victory tomorrow will effectively end the title race – in December. Of course, the title is unlikely to be mathematically decided until April at the very earliest, but with a nine point advantage over their closest rival it would take a brave man to bet against Barcelona reclaiming what many believe is rightfully theirs.
Indeed, Atletico Madrid head into the match as underdogs given their 2-0 defeat in El Derbi madrileño which has somewhat detracted from Atleti’s fabulous early season form. Falcao continues to score goals and plenty of them – El Tigre struck five last week against Deportivo La Coruna – but the Colombian has struggled to find form away from home with just two goals to his name away from the Vicente Calderón. As a result, Los Colchoneros have scored just once in their last three away games; so how can they expect to gain a favourable result against a Barça side that average three league goals per game at the Camp Nou?
In amongst last week’s celebrations, where Lionel Messi finally broke Gerd Muller’s long-standing record for goals scored in a calendar year en route to a crucial 2-1 away victory over Real Betis, news of Cesc Fàbregas’ injury didn’t quite receive the publicity it probably deserved. After all, Fàbregas has been in inspired form and after Lionel Messi; it’s possible that Cesc has been Barcelona’s best player under Tito Vilanova. Andrés Iniesta may disagree with that assessment, but at the same time, not even Iniesta can boast the kind of return that Fàbregas brings to the side. With seven goals and nine assists to his name, Cesc has played a part in over 20% of Barcelona’s goals and is likely to be sorely missed in midfield tomorrow.
Victor Valdés will start in goal tomorrow, and as Gabe remarked yesterday, it might come as a relief after Pinto’s performance on Wednesday. Pinto almost always plays well, and makes plenty of good saves in his time between the sticks, but his distribution is not up to the standard we have come to expect from Barcelona goalkeepers. Valdés on the other hand is composed with the ball at his feet, and for all his faults, Barça do play better with the Catalan in the starting XI. Just promise me you won’t try to dribble past Falcao please Victor?
Rumour has it that Adriano is set to start at right-back ahead of his fellow Brazilian Dani Alves, and I’m sure the majority of Culés will back that particular decision. Alves appears to be on the decline, while Adriano’s stock continues to rise at a staggering rate. Whether he’s playing on the left, on the right or even in the centre of defense, Adriano gives it his all – and reminds me a little of Pablo Zabaleta. Adriano is probably better offensively than Zabaleta, but both possess a similar work-rate and, crucially, a desire to win. While you never quite know what to expect from Dani, we know that we can expect a committed performance from Adriano tomorrow and in games like this, Tito needs players that he can count on.
Following on from that point, I fully expect Gerard Piqué to start tomorrow with Carles Puyol in support. Ever the model professional, Puyol’s sheer presence lifts the team to greater heights; and despite his formidable record, would you back Falcao against Puyi? Maybe my judgement has been clouded after watching so many games through my blue and red tinted glasses, but I honestly believe Falcao would struggle in a one-on-one battle with the great Carles Puyol. Completing the defense, Jordi Alba will start at left-back and faces the unenviable task of stopping Atleti’s overlapping attack.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets will start after sitting out Wednesday’s win over Cordoba and is likely to have Xavi Hernández in support. However, who is going to fill the final midfield spot? Will it be Andrés Iniesta, or will Tito give Thiago Alcântara his chance to shine? Obviously, no-one is expecting Iniesta to miss out tomorrow and therefore if he does not start in midfield he will start in attack, but Vilanova has to decide what is best for the team. Personally, I feel as though Iniesta has been better on the left-wing and Thiago was excellent in the corresponding fixture of last season, but that’s not to say that Thiago will start again tomorrow.
In attack, Lionel Messi will start, and is likely to be joined by Pedro. The Spaniard has been struggling for form recently, but appears to be part of Tito’s first-choice XI regardless of his troubles in front of goal. As mentioned above, Andrés Iniesta could complete the attack by starting on the left-hand side, but it’s also possible that Alexis Sánchez will start on the right, with Iniesta dropping back into midfield at Thiago’s expense. Hell, David Villa could start on the left, and if we really want to shake things up, maybe Alves could start on the right?
Adrian has recovered from a sprained ankle to be named in the squad for tomorrow’s match, although Cristian Rodriguez continues to miss out through injury. There were rumours of an injury to Falcao earlier in the week, but alas, the Colombian trained as normal and is also in the squad. Therefore, expect Atleti to be virtually unchanged from last week’s 6-0 win over Deportivo although Miranda will replace Cata Diaz after serving a one-match suspension for yellow card accumulation.
Atletico Madrid 1-2 FC Barcelona – 26th February 2012 – La Liga
Barcelona escaped the Vicente Calderón with all three points courtesy of Lionel Messi’s stunning free-kick winner. The Blaugrana took the lead through Dani Alves’ tap-in, and just as it looked as though they would have to share the spoils after Falcao equalised in the 49th minute, Messi’s moment of magic settled the game.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Adriano, Piqué, Puyol, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Alexis, Messi, Pedro
Atletico Madrid (4-2-3-1): Courtois; Juanfran, Miranda, Godin, Filipe; Gabi, Suarez; Koke, Diego Costa, Arda; Falcao
Barcelona have not been at their best in the past week, so they might struggle tomorrow against Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. However, Atleti aren’t great away from home, and often start slowly on their travels. If Barcelona come out strong, they should win and maybe even win comfortably. I’m leaning towards a 3-1 home win.