They say that revenge is a dish best served cold, presumably because all things being equal, cold food isn’t as appetising as hot food. I mean, who on earth likes a coffee that’s gone stone-cold for instance? It tastes terrible and therefore one might think this was the kind of thing that people had in mind when they said revenge was a dish best served cold, but if so, those same people made a dangerous oversight: sometimes food is actually better when it’s served cold.
And tomorrow evening FC Barcelona will have their opportunity to serve Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid with a three-course meal of Blaugrana revenge: a starter of gazpacho, a main of steak tartare and a nice bowl of ice cream to finish. Yes, it will still be revenge, but it will be served ice-cold, just the way that Atleti like it.
Being knocked out of the third most important competition of their season will be a concern, of course, but it’s by no means the end of the world. Indeed, Simeone can already no doubt see the positives in the situation – more rest for his squad in the coming midweeks, and more time to focus on La Liga and on the UEFA Champions League.
After being eliminated by Atletico in last season’s Champions League, and after being pipped to the post on the final day of the 2013/14 La Liga season, FC Barcelona will take their victories where they can get them. For them, the Copa del Rey is just the first of three trophies they will be looking to lift in April, May and June, but the Copa alone will not atone for all the heartbreak and pain we had to endure at the hands of Simeone’s side last year.
Still, it’s a start – and that’s more than we managed under Gerardo Martino.
Ivan Rakitić is back after his weekend off, or at least we suspect that he is – Luis Enrique is yet to release the details of the squad that will travel to Madrid tomorrow, so there’s going to be an element of guesswork here in my prediction. Some of it is common sense, well, all of it is to be honest, I’m erring on the side of caution and predicting a full-strength Copa del Rey line-up tomorrow for the trip to the Vicente Calderon.
That means a start in goal for Marc-André ter Stegen amidst more claims from some Culés that the German deserves to displace Claudio Bravo. I can see where they’re coming from in some respects; ter Stegen is more eye-catching, more "radical" – more "Manuel Neuer" in the sense that he is very much one of the new wave of goalkeepers gracing our game. He’s exciting, much more so than the traditional Claudio Bravo. Alas, is the best goalkeeper the one who races out to the ball and reaches the ball on nine out of ten occasions, or is the best goalkeeper the one who stays on his line and stops the shot?
In defense, Dani Alves should start at right-back – minus his furry, golden shoes – and his impressive form has reminded everyone that Barça should perhaps stop taking their favourite-ever Brazilian full-back for granted. In roughly five months’ time, Dani Alves’ contract at the club expires and we have not yet got him to put pen to paper and sign a new deal. The question is: why? Alves is clearly still so integral to this team, and his partnership with Lionel Messi has surely played a factor in the latter’s seamless transition back to a role on the right-hand side. Can we afford to let him go? At this stage, the answer has to be a resounding "no".
In the heart of defense, Gerard Piqué will start and the chances are that he will be joined by Javier Mascherano. It’s a pairing that many Culés ridiculed not so long ago, and yet now (and even then), their performances have been as good as, if not better than any other defensive pairing in the world. Pepe and Sergio Ramos, even Miranda and Diego Godin; they can only dream of forming such a stingy partnership. Barça’s defense has been far and away the best in Spain, with Piqué and Mascherano at the forefront.
Meanwhile, on the left hand side of defense, Jordi Alba will start and he too has been in excellent form this season. Defensively he has been more responsible, picking and choosing his moments on offense, often to deadly effect. In the La Liga match at the Camp Nou for example I was sat a few feet away from Alba in the first-half, and he was simply faultless in every respect. His workrate, his passing, his first touch; everything was perfect and that’s the kind of performance he has treated the world to time and time again in the biggest matches, whether it’s for us, or for Spain. Expect another big display tomorrow.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets will return at pivote. Luis Enrique’s rotation policy might not have won over everyone associated with the club but I get the sense that in April and May, we will be tahnking Lucho for taking every opportunity to rest the legs of some of our key players. Whether that’s literal key players, like Neymar for example, or key players within the system, such as Sergio Busquets who don’t usually get the plaudits.
For our team to function at its best, we need to play with tempo, and how do we get that tempo? By playing Sergio Busquets! His composure and ability in possession is unequalled, enabling us to retain more possession and recycle that possession faster, and more accurately than we do with Javier Mascherano. A key component of our strategy tomorrow should be to use Atleti’s strengths against them – make them chase the game, make them run after the ball when we play it through our midfield and through Busquets.
That would hint at an inclusion for Xavi, but of course I would prefer to see Ivan Rakitić restored to the line-up. Not that I’ve lost faith in Xavi’s ability, but instead it’s recognition that this kind of match requires a different kind of midfielder – an all-action, all-around player like Rakitić. Complemented by Andrés Iniesta, that’s the midfield duo we need to field in every match against the Atletico Madrid’s of this world.
In attack, Lionel Messi needs to start in his nominal role on the right, Neymar absolutely has to start on the left and Luis Suarez should start in the middle. The Uruguayan messes some things up, but his presence alone does wondrous things for the other two, affording them more time, more space and sometimes more chances as well. Once he adapts to the lack of space he now has to operate within at Barça, and once he relaxes in possession again, Suarez will surely thrive as well. Until then though, as long he keeps on creating space for Messi and Neymar to thrive, he’s still worth the investment.
Diego Godin is suspended, Koke and Tiago have both been left out of the squad; on paper, this is a "weakened" Atletico Madrid, yet in reality, there is no such thing anymore. Even last season, their squad depth was an issue – not so this season; Diego Godin will be replaced by one of the brightest young defensive talents in the world, Jose Maria Gimenez. Koke will probably be replaced by one of Atleti’s top scorers from last season’s successful campaign, Raul Garcia, and Tiago, well he didn’t play in the first-leg anyway. And still, even with those omissions, Simeone has options. Does he opt for a two-man strikeforce of Fernando Torres and Mario Mandzukic, possibly with Arda Turan and Antoine Griezmann in support?
Or, does he push the Frenchman into the attack alongside Mandzukic or, more likely, Torres, with Arda being supported by Raul Garcia in midfield? Maybe Villarreal loanee (and all round class player) Cani will get a look in? Oh, and there’s Olympic gold medallist Raul Jimenez in the squad as well! Chances are though that even facing this deficit, Simeone will play it "safe".
Atletico Madrid: WLDWLW
FC Barcelona 1-0 Atletico Madrid – 21st January 2015 – Copa del Rey
It was a difficult, close-fought encounter but after dominating possession for the majority of the match, Barça finally broke the deadlock courtesy of a late Lionel Messi tap-in to take a slender aggregate lead to the second-leg at the Calderon.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitić, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Atletico Madrid (4-2-2-2): Oblak; Gamez, Miranda, Gimenez, Siqueira; Suarez, Gabi; Garcia, Arda; Griezmann, Torres
This is going to be a tough one, but I see Barça not only qualifying, but picking up another win courtesy of its star-studded frontline: 2-1 to the visitors.
- FC Barcelona News: 27 January 2015; North America Summer Tour Announced, Jordi Roura Named Director of Youth Football
- Ivan Rakitic Set to Return for Copa Del Rey Quarterfinal Second Leg
- Report: Lucas Silva was offered to Barcelona before signing with Real Madrid
- Neymar: "This is my best moment at Barça"
- FC Barcelona News: 26 January 2015; Jeremy Mathieu Return to Training, Juan Román Riquelme Retires