FC Barcelona face their toughest test of the season so far tomorrow, as they travel to the capital, Madrid to take on Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon. This top of the table clash could prove pivotal for both sides' title challenge, as neither side will want to surrender their place at the top of the table. Of course, the Blaugrana will surrender much more than top spot should they lose tomorrow evening; a defeat would also signal the end of Barça's record breaking streak on top of La Liga, a run that currently extends for roughly a year and a half.
However, following Lionel Messi's triumphant return from injury on Wednesday, Barcelona are on a high and have every right to feel confident heading into tomorrow's clash. After all, they more than held their own against Atleti in August, when Simeone's side were arguably in better shape, certainly from a physical standpoint if not from a general perspective. With the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Pedro and Cesc Fabregas in scintillating form, Barca are a well-oiled, well rounded machine. Add in the talent of Lionel Messi and Neymar, and Barcelona are a lethal weapon, capable of vanquishing even the toughest foe.
And make no mistake, Atletico are the toughest foe we have encountered under Tata Martino. They can defend, they can fight and they can punish you, all with the same starting XI. Not even Real Madrid can boast such a versatile starting line-up, even after spending such a vast fortune in the transfer market.
So a win tomorrow would not only gift the Blaugrana some breathing room at the top of the table, but it would also give them the bragging rights. It would gift them the confidence to move forward without fear; knowing that they can rightfully claim to be the best in Spain.
Ibrahim Afellay has made the Barcelona squad for the first time in over a year, although the Dutch midfielder/winger is not expected to make the final cut when Martino whittles his squad down to just 18 names. In fact, as far as the 18 man squad goes, Martino is unlikely to pull any surprises; instead the focus is on his team selection. With a plethora of options, Martino will have to make a few tough calls. Just who will miss out, and who will get the vote of confidence?
Thankfully, Martino has an easy decision to make between the sticks. Victor Valdes will start in goal after a clean sheet on his return against Elche, and he is likely to be guarded by Barcelona's strongest back line. The only question is whether Javier Mascherano still stakes a claim to a spot in central defense given the emergence of young Marc Bartra.
After all, Gerard Pique, Dani Alves and Jordi Alba are obvious choices, but the final place really is up for grabs. Will Martino go for the form player in Bartra, or does he opt for the proven quality and experience of Javier Mascherano?
Sergio Busquets will claim his place at pivote, but he is unlikely to know the identities of his two midfield partners as Martino once again faces a tough decision. Andres Iniesta will start, but will he be accompanied by his usual partner in crime, Xavi, or will Cesc Fabregas get the nod? My gut tells me to stick with Xavi, especially for his control of the game, but will Martino feel the same way? Only time will tell.
And will Martino give in to the temptation of starting Lionel Messi? The Argentine was in incredible form on Wednesday, but that was at the Camp Nou against poor Getafe. Will Messi be able to replicate that form at the Calderon against Simeone's Atletico Madrid? The smart money is on yes -- it's Lionel Messi after all -- but with a wealth of options in good form, Martino can afford to gamble. A front line of Pedro, Neymar and Alexis Sanchez for instance would surely threaten the Atleti defense, potentially working to Messi's advantage, assuming he would make an appearance as a second-half substitute. It's a tough decision, let's see what Martino goes for.
Juanfran has had his one-match suspension for yellow card accumulation overturned meaning that Atletico no longer face the prospect of starting either a centre-half or an inexperienced youngster on the same flank as Neymar. From a Barcelona perspective, that's bad news, but lest we forget, this is only Juanfran. Is there any need to cry conspiracy just because a right back evaded suspension? Barcelona get their share of favourable calls as well; it's how you respond to set backs like this that matters.
At their very best, Barcelona wouldn't discriminate against an Atleti defense with or without Juanfran; starting or not, Barca would simply win. So let's turn our attentions to the rest of the squad; can we keep Diego Costa quiet? Can we find a way past Belgian shot-stopper Thibaut Courtois? These are the questions we should be asking; not focusing on some far-fetched anti-Barca conspiracy.
FC Barcelona 0-0 Atletico Madrid -- 28th August 2013 -- Supercopa de España
A goalless draw was enough to secure Barcelona's first title of the Gerardo Martino era as Neymar's away goal from the first leg ensured an aggregate win for the Blaugrana.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdes; Alves, Mascherano, Pique, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Messi, Fabregas, Neymar
Atletico (4-2-3-1): Courtois; Juanfran, Godin, Miranda, Filipe Luis; Tiago, Gabi; Arda, Koke, Villa; Costa
I'm an optimist. 3-1 Barca.