Onwards and upwards! FC Barcelona will be seeking to maintain their momentum tomorrow when they host reigning La Liga champions Atletico Madrid at the Camp Nou for the second time in ten days. It was just over a week ago that Barça’s emphatic 3-1 victory over Diego Simeone’s side set down a marker: a signal that FC Barcelona has turned a corner under the guidance of Luis Enrique and that they are ready to contend for honours. The principles on which this win was based: pressing, high tempo passing and incisive movement have also been the foundation for Barcelona’s recent wins over Elche CF and Deportivo La Coruna; can they replicate that form again tomorrow in the Copa del Rey?
Certainly, while our last win against Atletico Madrid will give us confidence, it will have also served as a wake-up call to Diego Simeone – a reminder that his team is far from unbeatable, and that they too have weaknesses that an opposing manager can exploit. No doubt, a manager of his undoubted pedigree will have studied the tape of the 1-3 defeat religiously, pinpointing each and every area in which his team and his system need to improve.
He will have surely constructed a gameplan to execute these changes, and meticulously drilled it into all of his players over the past few days; ergo, Luis Enrique and FC Barcelona must improve also. As they say, standing still in football is akin to moving backwards; he must carefully consider whether he wishes to make changes to his side, and what those changes might be if indeed he does. Indeed, just as much as this promises to be an epic battle between FC Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, it’s also shaping up to be an intriguing tactical battle between Luis Enrique and Diego Simeone.
After recent dramas at the club, Culés have been only too willing to lap up their side’s recent improvement perhaps prematurely. It’s only been a few matches after all; so in tomorrow’s match, Barcelona have the opportunity to make another statement: not only have we improved, but we’re consistent as well. It might only be the Copa del Rey quarter-final, but make no mistake: this is shaping up to be one of the most important matches of FC Barcelona’s season.
As such, it is good news that club captain Xavi Hernández is fit and back training with the squad. Luis Enrique confirmed that the veteran Catalan midfielder will form part of the squad tomorrow, although few expect that he will be able to displace Ivan Rakitić after the Croatian put Deportivo La Coruna to the sword on Sunday with two assists in a dominant midfield performance. Jeremy Mathieu on the other hand has not recovered from his Achilles problem, but I’m not entirely concerned about missing the Frenchman; Javier Mascherano and Gerard Piqué are in excellent form, while Marc Bartra is more than capable of putting in a solid display at centre-half if called upon.
The calibre of opposition will undoubtedly factor into Enrique’s team selection tomorrow, but there’s no reason to suspect that he will not uphold the usual Copa del Rey traditions; the first of which is the inclusion of the substitute goalkeeper, Marc-André ter Stegen. It’s probably an injustice to label ter Stegen as the back-up due to its negative connotations in the goalkeeping world, rather he would see himself as an equal with Claudio Bravo. As the Chilean gets La Liga duties, ter Stegen gets the UEFA Champions League and the Copa del Rey.
With Bravo in such fine form in La Liga, ter Stegen probably won’t fancy his chances at displacing the former Real Sociedad captain any time soon, but his performances in the high-pressure atmosphere that comes along with playing in knockout football may well come into play next season, if and when the decision is made about next season’s starting goalkeeper.
In defense, one suspects Luis Enrique will make one change – perhaps introducing Marc Bartra back into the fold in place of Javier Mascherano, but aside from that, I would be surprised if he tinkered too much. Dani Alves is finally getting the praise and recognition he deserves, while Gerard Piqué and Jordi Alba have both been in good form as well. It’s a solid back four, and arguably it doesn’t get any weaker, even if you substitute in Martin Montoya or Adriano Correia. The strength in depth at the club right now is impressive, and could play a considerable factor over the two legs of this tie.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets will continue at pivote having been rested for the final half-hour of the weekend’s crushing win over Deportivo La Coruna, while it’s probable that Andrés Iniesta will also join him after he too was withdrawn around the hour mark at the Riazor. The only question is whether Ivan Rakitić will keep his place. Certainly his form merits his inclusion and his playing style is suited to a match like this, but Xavi is the club captain, while Rafinha has been in impressive form as well. My money is on Rakitić keeping his place, but don’t be surprised if he does drop to the bench.
Of course, the attack also selects itself: Lionel Messi is back on form, Neymar terrorised Atleti just over a week ago and Luis Suarez might look a little offbeat, but he is still a far better option than Pedro up against this Atleti side. I would suspect that Pedro will rotate into the team at the weekend, but for now look for Lucho to stick with the big guns as he attempts to defeat Simeone for the second time in as many weeks.
In the La Liga fixture a week and change ago, Simeone fielded arguably his strongest available side, but lost. Does he keep the faith with the same players and make a few tactical adjustments, or does he switch it all up and introduce some new names to the starting line-up? It’s an interesting dilemma, and at the moment it appears as though he is reacting as if this were a normal Copa del Rey fixture. Jan Oblak will come into the team to start in goal, while there are suggestions that he might dabble with a two-man strikeforce of Mario Mandzukic and Fernando Torres, but other than that, it’s pretty much as you were for Atleti.
FC Barcelona 3-1 Atletico Madrid – 11th January 2015 – La Liga
The Blaugrana produced one of their best performances in years to send the reigning La Liga champions home to Madrid empty-handed, as goals from Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi secured a famous win for the ecstatic hosts.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Alves, Bartra, Piqué, Alba; Busquets, Rakitić, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Atletico (4-2-2-2): Oblak; Juanfran, Miranda, Godin, Siqueira; Mario Suarez, Koke; Arda, Griezmann; Torres, Mandzukic
This one is bound to be a lot closer than the La Liga clash; I’m going for a narrow 2-1 Barça win.
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