Winning and losing. Success and failure. Life and death.
The world is made up of contrasts and sport is no exception.
Beauty and the Beast; that’s how some have billed tomorrow’s UEFA Champions League quarter-final second-leg between FC Barcelona and Atletico Madrid – on the one hand you have the artistic brilliance of the Blaugrana, and on the other you have the brutally efficient, working class Los Colchoneros. They are the ying to Barcelona’s yang. Polar opposites both on and off the field.
But in spite of that notable contrast, it has proven impossible to distinguish between these two sides where it ultimately matters: on the scoreboard.
After 90 pulsating minutes at the Camp Nou, neither side could find a definitive breakthrough, scrapping their way to a hard-fought 1-1 draw. For Atletico Madrid, Diego Ribas’ sensational opener represents a valuable away goal, a precious commodity in high-stakes knockout football. For FC Barcelona, Neymar’s equaliser represents momentum, and a belief that Atletico are indeed beatable, just like anyone else.
Each side has their own positives and negatives to focus on, and undoubtedly each manager will have devoted a lot of time to analysing those strengths and weaknesses in detail, meticulously planning how to use every little nuance to their advantage. Such fine details are where games are won and lost, particularly in such a finely poised contest.
One chance, one moment of magic, one decision; this is a match that can, and probably will, be decided in a split second.
The spotlight is on each and every player to perform to the best of their abilities. Performances will be analysed, decisions will be scrutinised and blame will be apportioned accordingly. This isn’t just an important night for FC Barcelona and Atletico Madrid as a whole. This is an important night for Lionel Messi, for Neymar, for Gerardo Martino – for everyone. Are Barcelona a spent force in European football’s elite? Are Atletico Madrid the real deal?
You just know that the media are clamouring for answers and will be more than happy to base their judgements on the basis of tomorrow’s match alone. A season’s hard-work be damned – this is all that matters.
And in that sense, for one night only, FC Barcelona and Atletico Madrid won’t be too different after all.
The injury suffered by Gerard Piqué in last week’s first-leg couldn’t have come at a worse time. Barcelona are continuing to fight for every little piece of ground they can gain in the La Liga title race, all the while preparing for a Copa del Rey El Clasico final against Real Madrid in a week’s time. Throw in a tight UEFA Champions League quarter-final, and well it’s crushingly obvious that Barça will be devastated to be missing their best defender. There are rumours that Piqué could return in time for that final, but tomorrow will certainly come too soon.
Instead of joining the 21-man squad that embarked on a trip to the Spanish capital today, Piqué will be forced to watch the game from home, hoping that his teammates can book a place in the semi-finals for the seventh season in succession. There is good news on the defensive front, as club captain Carles Puyol travelled to Madrid – although he is yet to receive medical clearance to return to action.
Gerardo Martino has some important decisions to make tomorrow, but the starting goalkeeper is not one of them. Jose Manuel Pinto will start between the sticks, and Culés may not be heartened to know that he is yet to keep a clean sheet in this European campaign, conceding four goals in three appearances. However, if there was ever a time to start shutting the opposition out, it would be tomorrow.
A lot therefore rests on the Barcelona defense – which practically picks itself given Piqué’s injury. Dani Alves has been decisive in this UEFA Champions League campaign – he will start at right-back tomorrow, with Jordi Alba occupying the space left on the other flank. Curiously enough, it is Adriano Correia who boasts the most assists in this season’s competition – at least out of the Barcelona full-backs, but it would be a shock to see his name on the teamsheet tomorrow.
Puyol probably won’t get medical clearance, and even if he does, one has to assume that the safer, more logical and better option would be to start Marc Bartra alongside Javier Mascherano. Bartra was in great form in the first-leg, and even if he wasn’t up to that standard at the weekend, I’d still back him tomorrow. Who knows? With the transfer ban issue, we might need to start trusting Bartra a little more anyway.
In midfield, we all know the story. Sergio Busquets at pivote, Xavi Hernández in a central role – perhaps accompanied by Andrés Iniesta who created Neymar’s equaliser after withdrawing to his usual central midfield role. Cesc Fàbregas tends to occupy that same position, but is equally capable of playing in an attacking role – the kind of role that could be valuable against a club like Atletico Madrid.
After all, Fàbregas is more imposing than Lionel Messi. He is a better target for aerial balls, while his passing is obviously exemplary. He can drop a little deeper, allowing Barcelona greater control over possession and indeed the match in general, perhaps forcing Diego Godin and Miranda to drift further forward, drawing the Atletico Madrid defense into playing a higher line. That would leave more space for Lionel Messi and Neymar to penetrate from the flanks, creating the chances that could decide the tie.
Or it might just lead to a lot of sterile possession, with Messi and Neymar routinely running into a cul-de-sac of red-and-white shirts. Either way, based on Pedro and Alexis Sánchez’ form in the competition this season, it’s at least worth a shot.
Raul Garcia is back from suspension. Diego Costa has somehow recovered in time to return to the squad. Everything was falling into place for Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid, until Arda Turan missed the cut. The Turkish midfielder didn’t pass the fitness test and is therefore out of tomorrow’s match. It’s a relief for the Blaugrana, but let’s not celebrate just yet. Costa’s return is worrying news, even if there is a small part of me that wonders whether it will be a similar situation to the first-leg. He cannot be 100%, maybe he will simply aggravate the problem? But maybe he will be healthy enough to make the difference.
If he isn’t, look at Raul Garcia. The Spaniard has been in imperious form this season, and he stepped up in Costa’s absence (again) at the weekend, scoring the only goal of the game in a crucial 1-0 win over Villarreal. The Vicente Calderon loves him, loves his effort and his goalscoring ability. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that Arda is injured if it means Garcia finally gets a shot at making an impact against Barça?
Personally, I would have started Garcia regardless in a 4-4-1-1; but now Arda’s injury will likely force him out wide, which is at least a consolation for the Blaugrana. Otherwise, expect the same line-up that started a week ago and an identical approach from Simeone’s team.
FC Barcelona 1-1 Atletico Madrid – 1st April 2014 – UEFA Champions League
Neymar grabbed an important equaliser, cancelling out Diego’s opener to set up a fascinating second-leg between the two best teams in Spain.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Pinto; Alves, Bartra, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Messi, Fàbregas, Neymar
Atletico (4-4-2): Courtois; Juanfran, Godin, Miranda, Filipe; Koke, Tiago, Gabi, Garcia; Villa, Costa
Too close to call.
- FC Barcelona News: 8 April 2014; 21 Players Travel to Madrid to Face Atletico, Andres Iniesta on Verge of Milestone
- UEFA Champions League: FC Barcelona vs Atletico Madrid: The Deadlock Continues
- FC Barcelona News: 7 April 2014; Howard Webb to Referee Atletico Madrid vs Barcelona Game, Barça B Victorious
- FC Barcelona News: 6 April 2014; Barça Scrape Win Against Real Betis, New Espai Barça Project Approved
- From The Mind of Xoel: Messi's Brace Leads An Average-Looking Barça to 3-1 Win.