After a busy week (to say the least) for Barcelona behind the scenes, it's time for the team to respond on the pitch in a big game: Barça welcome Atlético Madrid to Camp Nou for a decisive match for both teams in terms of chasing Real Madrid for the La Liga title. More importantly, there's a lot on the line for Barça, and especially for coach Luis Enrique, whose future as the Blaugrana manager depends deeply on Sunday's result.
The 1-0 loss at the Anoeta triggered an unexpected and destructive crisis, with news breaking that Lionel Messi and Lucho couldn't stand each other, followed by president Josep Maria Bartomeu terminating the contract of Andoni Zubizarreta, the club's sporting director. A few hours later, Carles Puyol resigned as Zubi's assistant after only four months at the job. The very next day, Bartomeu announced that elections will be held at the end of this season to decide who will be the new president, which, according to Bartomeu himself, will serve as "a relief for the tension that currently surrounds the club".
The following morning, one more surprise: Barça Blaugranes learned that Bartomeu is set to sack manager Luis Enrique if the boss fails to win the game against Atlético; in fact, even a non-convincing win will be enough to terminate Lucho's contract. For Enrique, the only way to change the president's mind would be to get a very impressive victory that will prove that he is ready to lead this angry locker room into championships, while solving all the personal issues and getting his players focused on winning trophies.
It is a fact: things are not going well for Barcelona. The strong 5-0 Copa del Rey win didn't exactly dissipate all the black smoke surrounding Camp Nou, but it certainly served as a bit of a relief for the team, as well as the fans. Beating Atléti, however, would definitely end the crisis, at least for now, and also provide Enrique with a strong argument to keep his job.
But getting that crisis-ending win will not be easy. In addition to being a disappointing season for the Blaugrana, last year's campaign proved that Atlético are an established title contender. They didn't lose to Barça all season, and they won the La Liga trophy at the Camp Nou, with a historical defensive effort and a set piece game that works to perfection against the Catalans since forever.
Will Barcelona be able to show strength, overcome the adversities and show the world that they're still great?
Luis Enrique has yet to release the squad list, as he usually waits for matchday to reveal the eighteen players chosen to be in uniform for the match. As soon as he does it, Barça Blaugranes has you covered! Until Enrique gives us the team news, we're going to do an exercise of prediction. But considering that this is a big game, we can do a pretty accurate assumption of Lucho's tactical and personnel choices for the match.
Below the posts, Claudio Bravo is certain to start. As inconsistent as the team has been, Bravo is a positive. Every time Barça fans campaign for ter Stegen to become Barça's number one goalie, the Chile international comes through with a fantastic goal-stopping performance after another. Bravo is by far the best statistical goalkeeper of the Spanish League, as he has allowed only eight goals in seventeen matches. Given Barça's defensive track record, that's pretty impressive. Against Atlético's unstoppable set piece game, Bravo will need to have another sensational performance if Barça are going to win.
In front of Claudio, lies a fundamental part of Barcelona's chances to win on Sunday. The defense will need to play at a high level to stop Atléti's effective offense. Dani Alves is most likely to start as the right-back, and the Brazilian will be a major cause of concern against strong offensive players like Koke, Arda Turan and Guilherme Siqueira, all of which will attack Alves. Dani's season as a defender has been terrible, and he'll need to pick it up or he will become the weak link of the defense and an easy target for Atleti.
The pair of center-backs is also ultra-important to Barça's chances tomorrow. Because of the destructive aerial threat of the Colchoneros, there needs to be a tall center-back pairing. Thankfully, Gerard Piqué and Jérémy Mathieu are active, healthy and ready to go. Mathieu's aerial skills will be fundamental on this one, and Piqué has also shown tremendous improvement in that area in the last few games.
Jordi Alba is expected to start on the left side, and he will be one of the main factors on Sunday night. He has become a fundamental part of the offense, and it seems like every trip he makes to the opposing box results in a clear chance and/or a goal. Barça will need him to create havoc alongside Neymar on that side when they have the ball; on defense, Alba will also need to play a strong game because of the offensive threats of Juanfran's crosses, Koke's high IQ and Antoine Griezmann's quickness and intelligence. Alba is such a good player that he is able to handle them while still being important on the other side of the ball.
It is a fact that Barça's defense is a liability, so the key on this one is to limit Atleti's offensive trips, and press the Colchoneros in their own half; even if Barcelona fail to score, the success on limiting the chances of players like Mario Mandzukic, Griezmann and Turan will be a huge factor in tomorrow's match.
At pivote, Sergio Busquets is almost a sure bet to start. After being rested in the midweek CdR win, Busi is ready to go and he is one more key to the game. Because Atleti's midfielders are such good defenders and they will put pressure on the creative minds ahead of Sergio, it will be Busi's responsability to conduct the offense a lot of times. Is he up to the task?
Perhaps it would be helpful to have a better Ivan Rakitic to give him help. With the likely absence of Xavi Hernández due to injury, Rakitic will probably get another chance to start. He was Barça's worst performer against Elche in the eyes of many, and he has been declining lately after a shining start to the season, with the repeated passing mistakes on Thursday being his lowlight so far. On Sunday, he has to perform better, and his outside shooting could become a factor if Barça aren't able to penetrate Atleti's compact defense. Can we please get a Rocketic goal?
The last part of the midfield is Andrés Iniesta. He will most likely be the most creative player on the pitch, and he is known to rise on big games and have a spectacular showing. Barça certainly need that on Sunday. He'll have a hard time getting open with the constant presence of Gabi, Tiago and Koke, but he is intelligent enough to come up with a magical moment tomorrow.
Finally, unless Lucho is absolutely out of his mind, the trio of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez will headline the lineup, and the latter will be the third key component of the team. Since Diego Simeone took over and figured out a way to stop Lionel Messi, Barcelona has never had a strong center-forward who can hang with Atleti's tough defenders and serve as a decoy to give Messi some space. Now, Suárez is that guy. Neymar has been Barça's best player against Atlético, and his quickness and elusiveness give us the feeling that he is going to be okay and will probably do something great. But Suárez really needs to come up big on Sunday. His presence alone will give the Colchoneros cause for pause, so they can't chase Messi around all night long. If they do, Luisito won't need much chances to score. Hopefully, he is the guy who figures out how to solve the puzzle that is Simeone's scheme.
ATLÉTICO DE MADRID
Despite losing three key components of their team, mainly their premier striker, Diego Costa, Atléti haven't lost a step so far. Their start to the season has been strong, and the team's calling card is still one of the best defenses in football. Juanfran and Diego Godín have been amazing this season. Guilherme Siqueira isn't as good as Filipe Luís, but he's a capable full-back who can also defend.
João Miranda got hurt, and many thought the team would suffer with the loss of such a good center-back, but José Giménez has been a very reliable replacement, and Atlético's defense has been as great as always. But Miranda is back from injury, and he could be a surprise return after missing one month of action due to a hamstring issue. Don't be shocked if he cracks the starting lineup. As good as Giménez has been, he's not Miranda, and the Brazilian shut down Barça almost by himself last season.
Atléti's midfield is an underrated group of hard-working, talented lads. Gabi and Tiago provide strong defense at the pivot, while initiating the offense with accurate passing and well-timed runs to the offensive box. Arda Turan and Koke are rarely mentioned among the best midfielders in the world, but they are (at least in my opinion anyways). They can defend and attack with the same efficiency. Arda Turan's finishing is off the charts, and Koke's crosses are beautiftul.
In front of them, the most dangerous players on the team. Antoine Griezmann has been a phenomenal addition to the squad, as he has fit in perfectly into the style of Simeone football. He has provided his team with what David Villa failed to do last season, which is a supporting player for the main striker who has the necessary quickness to drift into open space when the main striker gets all the attention. Villa was more of a second striker, and the team lacked width. With Griezmann, the offense becomes much more unpredictable, fast, and dangerous. Great player.
Mario Mandzukic is the perfect man to replace Diego Costa. He can fight like Costa, he can grind like Costa, and he can finish like Costa, with his feet or his head. Being snubbed at Bayern Munich was actually a good think for the Croatian, who went to Spain and became the focal point of Atleti's offense. His 14 goals in 20 appearances this season prove that his killer instinct is still there, and he doesn't need a lot of chances to find the net.
And don't forget about Fernando Torres, who is back home and made his debut against Real Madrid last Wednesday. He is known to be a villain whenever he goes to Camp Nou, and tomorrow can be the perfect game for El Niño to show that he can still be a nightmare for the Blaugrana.
Atlético are a very complete, strong and resilient side, and things will be hard for Barça. As we've seen last season, a 1-0 win will be a blowout.
Atlético Madrid: DLDWWW
FC Barcelona 1-1 Atlético Madrid - 17th May 2014 - La Liga
A golazo from former Blaugrana Alexis Sánchez seemed to have secured the Spanish League title for the Blaugrana at the end of the first half, but Diego Godín scored the equalizer for the Colchoneros and gave Atlético the La Liga title last season.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Alves, Piqué, Mathieu, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suárez, Neymar
Atlético Madrid (4-4-2): Moyà; Juanfran, Giménez, Godín, Siqueira; Gabi, Tiago, Koke, Arda Turan; Griezmann, Mandzukic
Boy, is this a hard one to predict. It will be really tough, but I believe Barça will rise to the occasion and grind this one out. I'm going for a late 2-1 win.
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