FC Barcelona face arguably one of their toughest tests of the season so far tomorrow evening when they host La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid at the Camp Nou in the first-leg of their UEFA Champions League quarter-final clash with one of the season's surprise packages. Having reached the semi-final stage in each of the last six editions of the competition, the Blaugrana are again expected to advance to the final four, but know that Diego Simeone's side are more than capable of ending that record breaking streak. After all, they lead La Liga after 31 Jornadas; and it feels like eons ago that a side other than Real Madrid or FC Barcelona were sitting on top at such a late stage in the season -- and in some respects, this is uncharted territory.
After all, we have been eulogising about the quality of the current FC Barcelona and Real Madrid squads for years now; even for two clubs so steeped in history, the current crop of stars are arguably the best we have ever seen.
And Atletico Madrid still lead La Liga.
That's the context behind Atleti's achievement, but equally, we shouldn't quite engrave their name in any trophies just yet. Part of the unique aura that Barcelona and Real Madrid carry is their success over time. They are not, were not and never have been "one hit wonders". The Barcelona of the past decade were not the "flavour of the month", they were so much more.
They still are so much more.
They have proved themselves time and time again, while Atletico enter this tie inexperienced, naive and somewhat out of their depth. Yes, their success is the product of hard work and faultless planning, but they still carry that "flash in the pan" stigma. Just ask yourself this: do you really expect Atletico Madrid to challenge for the La Liga title again next season? Would you back them to reach the quarter-finals of this competition again?
At present, the answer would most probably be no, but in that sense, this game represents a potential turning point. In three attempts this season, Atletico Madrid are yet to defeat Gerardo Martino and FC Barcelona; a win tomorrow, at the Camp Nou, in "Barcelona's competition" and everything changes. The dynamic of the title race, the balance of this tie...
The perception of both clubs.
Confidence. Reputation. Success. It's all on the line tomorrow -- the only question is: who wants it more?
It was a nervous wait at times, but Barcelona finally received the news they had been waiting for today: Alex Song has received medical clearance to return to action. Wait, that's not it. Oh right, that's it, it was actually about Diego Costa. Whilst not strictly related to Barcelona's team news, one simply has to mention that Atleti's star striker missed training tonight, and is reportedly a game time decision for head coach Diego Simeone. After all, it's not like there's a lot to report from a Barça perspective.
The previous round against Manchester City and a couple of Clasico wins have taught us that the four midfielder system has undeniably been our most successful under Gerardo Martino -- and there is only so much variation that we can reasonably expect tomorrow. A 4-3-3 would be bold, or suicidal depending on your viewpoint; and with what may be his job on the line, Martino would be wise to elect for the sensible option.
That means Jose Manuel Pinto in between the sticks given Victor Valdes' unfortunate knee injury; even if the veteran Spaniard doesn't have any experience at this level, he is a more than capable replacement for our Catalan vice-captain and the proof is in the pudding. Pinto kept Barcelona's first away La Liga clean sheet for two and a half months on Saturday; in fact, Barcelona haven't conceded in three of their last four matches, and have kept two successive clean sheets against the league leaders.
The defense is in good shape. Dani Alves for instance has been decisive in this competition and was at his best in today's pre-match press conference. Taking questions from the world's media, Alves provided his usual soundbites but reaffirmed his commitment to the club; his motivation and hunger is infectious in the dressing room so it's imperative that we see a good showing from Alves tomorrow if we have designs on a victory. Gerard Pique has been a colossus in the "big games" thus far this season, and we need him to be on form again tomorrow, regardless of whether Diego Costa starts or not.
Javier Mascherano's form on the other hand has dipped in recent weeks. From a shaky performance in El Clasico to a fortunate non-call at the weekend, our usually dependable Argentine warrior has been threatening to cost us points; a far cry from January when he thoroughly handled Costa in the latest La Liga clash between the two clubs. A return to that kind of form would be welcome and well-timed given Valdes' absence. Jordi Alba has been solid on the left flank, if a little subdued from an offensive perspective. Should he throw caution to the wind and venture forward without abandon tomorrow to provide some cutting edge against what should be a disciplined Atleti defense, or should be continue to thrive in that sensible fullback role he demonstrated against Manchester City in the previous round?
That's a tough choice, unlike selecting the midfield for tomorrow's match. Sergio Busquets at pivote; Xavi and Cesc Fabregas as interiors with Andres Iniesta in that role on the inside left. It's proven deadly on many occasions this season -- will tomorrow be the latest instance? Perhaps the system’s inherent flaws surrounding the lack of "cutting edge" will be found out instead? The heavy reliance on Andrés Iniesta and Lionel Messi to create something, often out of nothing might not be an issue given the magical form that the pair are in, but it’s something to think about for Martino.
If Andrés Iniesta occupies one of the three forward positions, and Lionel Messi assumes one of the other, it’s tough to predict just who the final berth will be granted to. Neymar scored the only goal in three matches against Atletico this season; a trophy-winner no less. His form has been up-and-down, but he is a game-winner. Alexis Sánchez is a great player, but does he possess that inherent ability to turn the tide of a game? He thrives at the Camp Nou, but is that down to his playing style – does he really just thrive when the task at hand is a little more forgiving?
Pedro’s bout of the flu probably rules him out of contention for a starting berth, and no matter which way I spin it, I can’t see Sánchez edging out Neymar for the final place in the team. Would that be the right call? Is the step way from a 4-3-3 the right decision? It’d be interesting to gauge public opinion, especially after the success of the Clasico.
Atleti reached the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey, and were pitted against their city rivals Real Madrid. Having clinched the cup against Los Blancos just last summer, Los Colchoneros were arguably the favourites to progress to the final, but they choked. Over two legs, they couldn’t deal with Real Madrid’s quality, and didn’t know how to play for a result when the match didn’t strictly end after 90 minutes. For Diego Simeone, it was a wakeup call. This wasn’t the UEFA Europa League, this wasn’t a knockout tie against a Valencia, or even an Athletic Bilbao. A real "welcome to the big time" from Carlo Ancelotti’s side.
5-0 was the score at the end of 180 minutes of football. Atletico Madrid had been humbled.
Have they learnt their lesson? Were they even that bad in the Copa del Rey? Are Barcelona ruthless enough to romp to a similar (albeit still surprising) margin of victory? So many questions, and for Diego Simeone, this is a chance to answer the critics. Answer those people like me, who look at the league table and continue to doubt their credentials. The Argentine coach refuses to label either side as favourites and anticipates a close tie, but it’s safe to say that the tie will get a little less "close" if Diego Costa does miss out tomorrow.
It’s probably just a precaution, but he might not be at 100%, and that may be enough. They are already without the suspended Raul Garcia, who leads all Atletico Madrid players not named Diego Costa in goals scored this season with 15. Take away his goals and throw a potentially unfit Diego Costa into the mix and it’s tough to see Atletico posing as much of a threat. Instead, it seems obvious; to me at least, that Simeone is the type of coach who will play for the draw. A Mourinho-type, who will refuse to throw caution to the wind, instead preferring to parade it around at his very ethos in tomorrow’s match.
Get in their faces, restrict the space in midfield and particularly in the final third; step on a few toes, literally. Simeone isn’t a tough coach to read, but he is tough to beat. If you thought the Espanyol match was intense at the weekend, just wait until you see Atletico take to the field tomorrow.
Atletico Madrid: WWWWWW
Atletico Madrid 0-0 FC Barcelona – 11th January 2014 – La Liga
Two of the best teams in La Liga played their way to an intriguing stalemate at the Vicente Calderon in a match that was hard-fought from the get-go.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Pinto; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Fàbregas; Neymar, Messi, Iniesta
Atletico (4-3-2-1): Courtois; Juanfran, Godin, Miranda, Filipe; Gabi, Tiago; Suarez, Gabi, Tiago; Arda, Koke; Costa
It’s tough to call. A La Liga fixture, and I’d call this as a score draw, but that won’t really be good enough for FC Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League, so I’m praying for a win, and have an hunch it might end 2-0 Barça.
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