FC Barcelona can secure the La Liga title tomorrow, provided that they can escape the Vicente Calderon with a win against Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. For much of the season, Atleti looked as though they had the talent to even threaten Real Madrid and challenge for second-place, but a 2-1 defeat at home to Los Blancos two weeks ago all but ended those hopes before last weekend’s disappointing 0-0 draw with Deportivo La Coruna virtually confirmed that Simeone’s side would finish the season in third place. Los Colchoneros bounced back with a victory on Wednesday night, as an inspirational performance from Diego Costa secured a valuable three points against relegation-threatened Celta Vigo. Star striker Falcao may be destined for an exit in the summer, but with five goals in his last five matches, the Colombian is in a rich vein of form – and will surely fancy his chances against a shaky Barcelona defense. Can Falcao fire Atletico to a historic victory over the Blaugrana and deny the Catalans the opportunity to secure their 22nd La Liga title in Madrid, or will Lionel Messi return to the starting XI and drag Barça to the title with another virtuoso display against Atleti?
As mentioned above, Lionel Messi has shaken off his hamstring injury and therefore could move into contention for a place in the starting XI for the first time since the 30th March, when Messi started (and inevitably scored) against Celta Vigo. Despite Messi’s injury, the Blaugrana have won four of their last five La Liga matches and in that time, Alexis Sánchez has scored four goals and assisted five others. Despite claims to the contrary, Barça have for the most part, functioned well without their superstar forward – and with Leo in the side? Well, it’s almost unfair.
In 31 La Liga appearances this season, Messi has scored 46 goals and played a part in a further 14. That’s a total of 60 goals, nearly two per appearance or a goal every 43 minutes. In just 35 minutes last weekend, Lionel Messi scored twice, and hit the woodwork – demonstrating that he is still the best player in Europe, despite his goalless display against Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League semi-final. Anyway, back to the team news for tomorrow’s match, and as Bostjan reported in the news today, both Victor Valdés and Eric Abidal are set to miss the trip to Madrid through injury. Javier Mascherano has returned to training as he steps up his recovery from a knee injury sustained against PSG, but will not feature tomorrow.
With Valdés injured, Jose Manuel Pinto will start in goal for the second successive week and B team keeper Jordi Masip will therefore take Pinto’s usual place on the Barça bench. Dani Alves should start at right-back, with Gerard Piqué and Marc Bartra likely to start in the centre of defense. While Adriano got the nod last weekend, he was arguably at fault for Betis’ opening goal – and plus, what’s the problem with starting an actual centre-half alongside another actual centre-half? Regardless of Tito’s choice of partner for Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba will start at left-back to make his 26th appearance in what has been a very successful debut La Liga campaign for Alba with the Blaugrana.
Sergio Busquets has been named in the squad for tomorrow’s match, but I don’t see him starting this one – while Messi’s been playing upwards of 30 minutes in the past couple of matches, Busquets has seen very little time at all. Alex Song has been performing relatively well in his absence and as a result, there is pretty much no reason to rush Busi back into the action and risk another injury. Both Xavi and birthday boy, Andrés Iniesta, started last weekend’s win over Real Betis, and this is another big game for the club, so I expect the duo to start again tomorrow night, even if both Thiago and Cesc Fàbregas are in contention for a starting berth.
Lionel Messi will probably start (although equally, he may start on the bench, if Real Madrid cannot complete their comeback against Espanyol [score was 1-1 at the time of publish] and therefore gift Barcelona the title a night early) and if that’s the case, then there’s only room for two other players in the Barça attack. Alexis Sánchez must be guaranteed a role after his recent run of form, and Pedro has only just returned from what sounded like a nasty illness. As a result, I doubt he is in condition to start and complete the 90 minutes at the Vicente Calderon, meaning that the final place is between Cristian Tello, and David Villa. Unlike El Guaje, Tello didn’t score last weekend, but with Villa edging ever closer to an exit from the Camp Nou, it’s possible that Tito won’t want to start the veteran Spaniard – after all, these final weeks aren’t just about securing the La LIga title, but also planning for the future. If Messi doesn’t start, Cesc Fàbregas would be the obvious choice – either way, I find it tough to envisage a start for David Villa.
Real Madrid left Mesut Ozil and Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench for tonight’s match against Espanyol, presumably with one eye on Friday’s Copa del Rey final. Will Atletico Madrid follow suit and rest a few key players ahead of their first Copa final in three years? Thibaut Courtois (linked with Barcelona, and set to claim his first Zamora trophy in the coming weeks) has missed training this week, but has recovered in time to make Simeone’s final eighteen man squad – along with B team midfielder Óliver Torres, who starred in Spain’s UEFA European Under-19 Championship triumph this past summer alongside the likes of Gerard Deulofeu and Alejandro Grimaldo.
FC Barcelona 4-1 Atletico Madrid – 16th December 2012 – La Liga
Falcao put the visitors ahead on 31 minutes, but Barcelona fought back, equalised just five minutes later through Adriano and took the lead before half-time courtesy of Sergio Busquets. A Lionel Messi brace secured the three points and sent out an ominous warning to the rest of La Liga.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Pinto; Alves, Piqué, Bartra, Alba; Song, Xavi, Iniesta; Sánchez, Messi, Tello
Atletico (4-2-3-1): Courtois; Juanfran, Miranda, Godin, Filipe Luis; Gabi, Garcia; Koke, Diego Costa, Turan; Falcao
I’m going to venture on the optimistic side and go for a 3-1 Barcelona win