Following their 7-0 demolition of Levante on Sunday evening, FC Barcelona face their first real "test" of the 2013-2014 season tomorrow, when they take on Copa del Rey winners Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon. This match – the first of a two-legged Supercopa de España tie between the two sides – should test Gerardo Martino’s Blaugrana to the limit and give the fans a better assessment of Barcelona’s chances this upcoming season, at least compared Sunday’s match against likely relegation candidates Levante.
Under the guidance of former Argentina international midfielder Diego Simeone, Atletico have finally claimed a win against their city rivals Real (in the final of the Copa del Rey no less) and have cemented their reputation as one of the most-feared clubs in the country. While star players such as Falcao, David de Gea and Sergio Aguero may come and go, Atletico’s discipline and work ethic has enabled them to continue to compete with the rest of the league, culminating in last season’s spectacular and somewhat unexpected third-place finish.
Statistically, this was Atleti’s best season since 1995-96 – both in terms of league position and silverware – and if Jornada One is anything to go by, Los Colchoneros appear to be in a great position to replicate that success this season. With the long-term future of "new" star striker Diego Costa secured, Atletico upset the odds to not only defeat wise-spending Sevilla at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, but emerge with a comfortable 3-1 victory – enough to move them back into third-place, and crucially stay ahead of rivals Real Madrid.
Will Diego Simeone be able to mastermind a similar "upset" tomorrow and bring the high-flying Blaugrana back down to earth, or will Barça soar to another majestic victory under ‘Tata’ Martino?
Thankfully Barcelona managed to escape the first matchday without any further injuries of note; as with Carles Puyol, Isaac Cuenca and Ibrahim Afellay sidelined with long-term injuries, Barça can ill-afford another serious injury to strike-down a member of their already small squad. This is particularly true given the lack of strength in-depth at the club as a whole – unlike last season Barcelona cannot turn to their B-team and to the likes of Gerard Deulofeu, Rafinha Alcântara or even Sergi Roberto; two of this talented triumvirate have left the club on loan, while Roberto is a permanent member of this small squad.
So, to reiterate one of the lessons of last season, it’s imperative that Martino takes good care of his squad and focuses on rotation – even this early in the season.
Unfortunately, last season’s amnesty – which was the reasoning behind Jose Mourinho’s surprising (and upsetting) pardon, allowing the Portuguese eye-poker to take charge of Real Madrid in last season’s Supercopa – was something of a "one-off" to celebrate the re-election of long-time RFEF President, Ángel María Villar. Therefore, Diario Sport reports that Barça full-back Adriano is suspended for tomorrow’s match after he picked up a red card in last season’s disappointing second-leg defeat against Los Blancos. Never mind that his offense was far less serious than Mourinho’s – because clearly, if you’re getting suspended in an annual competition, you just need to make sure that you do it in an election year, otherwise the punishment will stick...
Adriano’s suspension will not impact on the majority of Martino’s team selection, but it could have far-reaching consequences. Dani Alves picked up a slight knock in the match against Levante, but with Adriano ruled out, it’s likely that the Brazilian will be required to start at right-back once again. Martin Montoya could deputise, but is Martino likely to take that risk against such strong opposition, particularly so early into his reign? Maybe if Montoya had impressed a little more during pre-season, Martino may have considered it, but for now, one must assume that Alves will once again get the nod.
The only trouble is what happens if Alves aggravates his injury. At the moment, it strikes me as unlikely – he took a knock, it’s not like he picked up a strain or a sprain – yet with Barcelona, any injury, no matter the severity, is worrying for a Culé.
Alves is almost certain to be joined in defense by Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano, who combined to excellent effect on Sunday, shutting out the Levante attack with relative ease. Can they provide us with a similarly disciplined performance to keep their former colleague, David Villa, at bay? If the pre-season and the past weekend taught us anything, it’s that El Guaje might not even be the problem – instead, the Blaugrana must focus their attentions on Diego Costa. The Brazilian striker isn’t a particularly likeable player, but he sure is effective – will Piqué and Mascherano be able to cope with the unique threats that he will pose?
And from an offensive perspective, will the return of Jordi Alba signal a change in tactics for Barcelona?
On Sunday, Pedro provided the width on the left-hand side of attack, creating space for Cesc Fàbregas and Adriano to move into the channels and capitalise on the space between the full-back and the centre of defense. This, obviously, worked extremely well – but will Alba’s inclusion "change the game" for the Blaugrana?
Typically, the speedy Catalan full-back operates on the overlap, doing the damage with the speed and frequency of his runs, rather than with his intelligence. In the majority of scenarios, this youthful, almost innocent enthusiasm works to Barcelona’s advantage – but it can also leave Barça susceptible to counter-attacks, especially against disciplined opposition.
Can Alba demonstrate that he is able to "pick and choose" when and where he makes his marauding runs, in order to maximise their effectiveness and help Barça keep their defensive shape? Or will he venture forward as per usual, forcing Martino into an offensive change of personnel?
In midfield, Sergio Busquets is favourite to continue at pivote, although there are question marks as to who will join him in the centre of the field. Xavi is the team captain in Carles Puyol’s absence, but Cesc Fàbregas was a clear Man of the Match against Levante – while Andrés Iniesta is the current holder of the UEFA Best Player in Europe Award. Someone has to miss out though – and who might that be?
There are suspicions that it might be Xavi – but a steady influence in midfield might be just what Barcelona need to escape the Vicente Calderon with a win. Looking at the positives, it really is a "good" problem to have.
Moving onto the attack – Lionel Messi will start, but Gerardo Martino has kept his cards close to his chest with regards to who will join him. Both Pedro and Alexis Sánchez were withdrawn from Sunday’s match – so it’s not like one was obviously rested ahead of the other – and both Pedro and Alexis played exceptionally well. They truly are neck-and-neck – yet no-one is really entertaining the thought that they will start together, simply because it means that Neymar would be sitting on the bench for the second time in less than a week.
Whether he scored on Sunday or not, Neymar was signed to play in the first-team – and that’s where he is expected to be tomorrow.
Following on from the earlier point on Alba, perhaps that’s the only real solution for Gerardo Martino? If Jordi Alba is providing the true width (regardless of its dangers), then there is no real need for Pedro to position himself on the left-hand touchline, creating space in the line-up (and on the field) for Neymar. A player of his talents would be wasted as "bait" for the full-backs anyway; Neymar needs to be drifting inside in a free role to really influence the game.
And this might be what tips the scales in Andrés Iniesta’s favour – while he was hardly a natural on the left-wing, his inclusion in the midfield triumvirate could allow Neymar to really drift around the field (à la Messi), while Iniesta "covers" on the left. Provided the left-sided trio of Alba, Iniesta and Neymar press in unison, it might not be defensively-suspect either – although given their play styles, I’d be surprised if Neymar often started alongside Adriano, or to see Pedro and Alexis start with Jordi Alba at full-back.
Atletico last qualified for the Supercopa in 1996, when curiously enough, they were defeated by FC Barcelona. With players like Ronaldo, Hristo Stoichkov and Iván de la Peña on the roster, Barça were simply too strong for the reigning La Liga champions – who put up a spirited fight-back in the second-leg to "only" lose 6-5 on aggregate. With Diego Simeone at the helm, it would be a shock to see such a high-scoring affair this year, especially with Falcao plying his trade in Monaco.
Diego Costa, David Villa and Leo Baptistao are all great players – but none are quite as prolific, quite as "scary" as Falcao, at least any more. And judging by last season’s encounters between the two sides, Falcao’s departure should therefore ease Barcelona’s fears – it was the Colombian who scored both goals against the Blaugrana in La Liga last summer, not Diego Costa.
Still, Atleti pose a unique threat thanks to their discipline, hard-work and various other factors, some of which we will examine in a little more detail tomorrow; at their best, they are more than capable of defeating Barça in a one-off contest.
Atletico Madrid: DWLWWW
Atletico Madrid 1-2 FC Barcelona – 12th May 2013 – La Liga
Falcao’s early second-half goal appeared to be enough to secure a shock win for the hosts, before late goals from Alexis Sánchez and Gabi (own goal) helped Barça register a comeback win.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Mascherano, Piqué, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Neymar
Atletico Madrid (4-4-1-1): Courtois; Juanfran, Godin, Miranda, Filipe Luis; Koke, Suarez, Garcia, Turan; Costa; Villa
Barcelona certainly won’t have it as easy as they did against Levante, but I think they will still have enough to secure a valuable first-leg win over Atleti. I’m going for a 2-1 Barça win.
More from Barca Blaugranes:
- Who's the Boss? Gerardo "Tata" Martino Changes Lionel Messi's Role in Barcelona vs. Levante
- FC Barcelona News: 20 August 2013; Dani Alves Treated for Bruised Ankle, Training Session Focused on Recovery
- Are FC Barcelona Interested In Signing Iker Casillas?
- 2013-2014 FC Barcelona Season: Prediction Time!
- Change in Times