La Liga: FC Barcelona vs Atlético Madrid: Match Preview

David Ramos

A preview of the title-decider between FC Barcelona and Atlético Madrid.

League Leaders

Jornada 1-21: Barcelona

Jornada 22: Atlético Madrid

Jornada 23-24: Barcelona

Jornada 25-28: Real Madrid

Jornada 29-37: Atlético Madrid

Jornada 38: ?

You could've hardly written a better script for this season's Liga title race. The "two-horse race" has been blown wide open by the introduction of the rampaging bull that is Atlético Madrid. A team forged in manager Diego Simeone's mould has broken the stranglehold that Barcelona and Real Madrid had over the title and with just one game to go, they are the team on top of the pile.

Throughout the season, each team has had one hand on the title, only for it to be wrestled back by the chasers. It started with a sustained period for Barcelona at the top, only for Atlético to move clear in week 22. The Catalans reclaimed top spot before Real Madrid fired their way to the top after a tricky start to their season. The Madrid side faltered and their neighbours capitalised. Now the only thing standing between the red and white and their first Liga crown since the 1995-96 season, is the red and blue of Barcelona.

These teams have locked horns plenty of times already this season. They started in the Supercopa with the first leg at the Vicente Calderón. Ex-Barça player David Villa opened the scoring for the Madrid side before Neymar levelled with his first goal for the club. The return leg was an even tighter affair with Messi missing a penally late in the second half. The game finished goalless and Barça claimed the trophy on the away goals rule.

The teams next met in January of this year. The La Liga clash again finished goalless as these two football heavyweights continued to cancel each other out. After the game, both teams battled domestically and in Europe. Barcelona overcame Manchester City while Atleti knocked out AC Milan, setting up an all Spanish quarter-final.

The first leg was at the Camp Nou and there was still nothing to separate the two sides. Diego scored a wonder goal only for Neymar to again rescue Barça. The second leg however was a different story, Koke scored an early goal as Simeone's side managed to get the first win of the five meetings this season. But as we head into the final game of the season, it's Tata Martino who needs a win.

Only two times previously has the Liga been decided on the final day of the season with the two title elects playing each other, in 1946 and 1951. Barcelona lost the former, losing the title to Sevilla while Atlético came out champions in 1951. Xavi has called it a "historic opportunity" and it is going down as the biggest game in Spanish football history.

TEAM NEWS

BARCELONA

Neymar, Jordi Alba and Gerard Piqué have all been named in the squad having returned from lengthy injuries. The trio were all ruled out in April but trained with the squad on Friday and were given the medical green light later in the day. Carlos Puyol is also named in the squad but declared yesterday at his farewell event that he would play no part. Victor Valdés remains out.

With Valdés out, José Manuel Pinto will play his final game for the club. The Spanish keeper joined in 2008 but his contract is up at the end of the season and there is no sign of a renewal. Both Jordi Alba and Gerard Piqué are likely to immediately return to the starting line up with Adriano and Javier Mascherano dropping to the bench. So expect a back four of Dani Alves, Gerard Piqué, Marc Bartra and Jordi Alba.

In midfield, Martino will likely elect for the trusted partnership of Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández with Sergio Busquets playing deeper. Barcelona will be looking have as much control of the ball as possible, which these three players are expects at. Although he may choose to take it a set further and play all three of Cesc Fàbregas, Iniesta and Xavi with either Iniesta or Fàbregas playing as part of the front three. Personally I'd prefer to see Fàbregas start from the bench and come on later in the second half.

Similar to Alba and Piqué, I think Neymar will also make an immediate return to the starting eleven. If Tata does choose to play four midfielders, we may see Neymar in his less traditional position on the right but I imagine him starting the game from the left side with Pedro losing out. Fresh after signing a new contract, Lionel Messi will start in the centre and my prediction is Alexis Sánchez will partner him on the right.

ATLÉTICO MADRID

Diego Simeone has been blessed with a fully fit squad in what is the biggest game in his managerial career. His star striker Diego Costa was the centre of many stories on Tuesday after reports claimed Chelsea had agreed a deal with the Madrid club for the Brazil born Spaniard's signature and this game could very well decide his future.

Costa will likely be used alongside ex-Barça man David Villa in a 4-4-2 formation. Atleti will be looking to disrupt the Catalans' passing game and will do this by bolstering their midfield. The likes of Tiago, Gabi, Arda Turan and Koke will be the key in stopping Barça getting into their groove.

Another man who may well leave the club in the summer is Thibaut Courtois. The Belgian keeper is on-loan from Chelsea and there have been rumours about whether he would be returning to Spain next season. In an ideal world Courtois would love to give the club a league and Champions League double if he is to leave.

FORM GUIDE

Barcelona: LLWWDD

Atlético Madrid: WDWWLD

LAST MEETING

Atlético Madrid 1-0 FC Barcelona - 9th April 2014 - UEFA Champions League

An early goal from Koke coupled with a great defensive performance from Atlético meant the Madrid side progressed in the competition at the expense of Barça.

LIKELY LINE-UPS

FC Barcelona (4-3-3): Pinto, Alves, Piqué, Bartra, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Neymar, Messi, Alexis

Atlético Madrid (4-4-2): Courtois, Juanfran, Miranda, Godín, Luis, Koke, Tiago, Gabi, Turan, Villa, Costa

MATCH PREDICTION

An incredibly tight game that Barcelona will knick 2-1.

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