FC Barcelona return to action tomorrow after a seven-day break to face traditional bogey team Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon. The earlier meeting between the two teams ended in an emphatic Manita victory for the Blaugrana, but even under Pep Guardiola the team have struggled at the Vicente Calderon, picking up only a single win from three attempts. Admittedly, that was last season, but the odds are firmly stacked against Barcelona.
Atletico Madrid as a side from La Liga may be the epitome of inconsistency, but Atletico Madrid as an opponent for Barcelona are a different beast entirely. They simply relish these occasions, perhaps even more than they "enjoy" facing their city rivals Real, and as result they play their best football. Take 2009 as an example, I vividly remember one of the best matches of football I have had the pleasure of witnessing. Sure, Barcelona lost 4-3 courtesy of a brace each for Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero thus cutting their lead at the top of the league to four points, so really I should look back on that match with disappointment, but thankfully it didn’t matter in the end: Barcelona obviously went on to claim the league title regardless of that match.
That is the quintessential example of a Barcelona – Atletico Madrid match: entertainment aplenty, goals everywhere you look and crucially football as it should be played. Each side likes to attack, each side wants to retain possession, and neither side can really defend. Except I’m not sure whether that is the case anymore, how will the arrival of Diego Simeone impact upon one of La Liga’s most exciting fixtures?
Thankfully I can look at other major changes and deduce from those examples that the excitement of this fixture is akin to a cockroach in that it simply will not die, not matter the circumstances. After all, the departures of Diego Forlan, Sergio Aguero and even guys like Samuel Eto’o or Thierry Henry (who scored a brace on that fateful night in 2009) could not kill the competitiveness, but a change in manager poses the biggest threat in a long time. We have seen Diego Simeone’s approach to matches against fellow mid-table sides and relegation strugglers, but he has never pitted wits with Pep Guardiola, and if he changes his philosophy as a mark of respect to his fellow defensive midfielder-turned-coach, will the fixture suffer?
There will only be one way to find out: to watch the match tomorrow and then draw conclusions that way, but here’s hoping for the best. In a league campaign that is fast becoming a forgettable affair, I almost feel entitled to my annual dosage of "real" football. Guess that makes me spoilt...
Pep Guardiola has had the luxury of an uninterrupted week with his players for what seems like the first time in an eternity, and I expect the result to reflect that positive news. Knowing Guardiola, the week has been spent studying up on Atletico’s tendencies under Simeone, including some sort of analysis of their 1-0 win at home to Lazio on Thursday. On top of that, there probably will have been some sort of emphasis on tactical matters, especially given the poor form away from home and the obvious uncomfortable feeling when away from the Camp Nou.
Victor Valdes will start in goal, and presumably he will have read up so to speak on Atletico’s corner kick routines. Atleti had 10 corners on Thursday, and Diego Godin’s goal was definitely the result of a well-worked, expertly trained routine rather than a hit and hope off-the-cuff routine favoured by some teams. That particular corner was driven with some pace, so Valdes will have to be absolutely certain that he will make contact with the ball if he ventures off his line, or else he could pay the ultimate price.
That’s not to say he would be the only one responsible, Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol are both available and fit for selection, so I expect the two will start tomorrow, although I wouldn’t rule out a return for Javier Mascherano who is back after serving a one-match suspension. Also available after a suspension is Dani Alves, but the Brazilian is near guaranteed a start unlike his Argentine colleague. Martin Montoya may have performed well in his absence, but Alves is still the first choice in everyone’s minds, most importantly Pep’s. Eric Abidal is likely to complete the back four, making for the strongest defense possible for a hugely important game.
Sergio Busquets’ return has led to the return of Barcelona’s slick possession game rather than the tame, hell, sterile domination we witnessed in his absence. Busi links the defense to the midfield with effortless ease, but his through ball last week for Leo Messi reminded us of the attacking threat he can offer if necessary. With Xavi struggling to reach full fitness, Busi has taken up the mantle in a way many couldn’t even fathom, but it comes as no surprise to Barcelona fans as we realise from watching him each week that he really is one of the best players in the world, and one of the most important cogs in the merciless passing machine.
As I mentioned above, Xavi has been feeling the effects of his storied career, but he may return to the starting lineup. It all depends on the wish of both the player and Guardiola whether or not he is "risked", although I would be tempted to leave him on the bench as a nod to Del Bosque and his thoughtful omission. Being honest, it would be downright disrespectful to allow Del Bosque to leave Xavi out, even for a friendly if Pep went to start him in the prior league match, indicating that there is nothing wrong with the Catalan. Therefore, I expect to see Cesc Fabregas in the starting lineup alongside Andres Iniesta. It worked well enough against Valencia, so why change it now?
Offensively, there is little question about it: Lionel Messi will start, as will Alexis Sanchez. In fact, even the third place is nigh on cemented down by Pedro as both Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello have often been left on the bench for the away matches, particularly those against European-calibre opposition. Pedro may have been the subject of some criticism from some sections of the Blaugrana fanbase, but I remain a firm believer in his abilities, especially in the big matches. Sure, Tello has been great in his few appearances for the first team, but who would you trust in the Champions League final? Pedro with his proven ability and unparalleled "big game" scoring record or the raw talent of a lightning-fast winger? You know who gets my vote, and that’s why I think Pedro will start tomorrow.
Match Prediction: I don’t think the match will be as exciting as previous encounters, but it should be a winnable match for Barca. 3-1 is my prediction.