The international break is mercifully over, which can mean only one thing: the return of La Liga and FC Barcelona. It’s been a tough fortnight since the Blaugrana were last in competitive action at the Camp Nou against Malaga CF, and while we’re all glad to have the domestic game back on the agenda, there is still a sense that this particular match has come just a little too soon for our liking. Squaring off against Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon – we’re all wondering the same thing: are FC Barcelona ready?
Respect is a key term in football and if you really think about it, it ultimately shapes the way that the game is played. On a micro-level, players will determine their actions often on the basis of their respect for the opposition – "will this player be able to tackle me?", "will the goalkeeper be able to make the save if I shoot in the corner?" "should I dive into the tackle, or should I stand off and give him space?"
Then on a macro-level, entire tactical systems are partly based on respect; teams often pack the midfield and defense against Barcelona – because they respect the attacking prowess that the team possess.
And now in their fifth season under the guidance of Diego Simeone, Atletico Madrid are very much a side that command respect. They’ve earnt it the hard way, grinding out results, never backing down, always fighting to the end and ultimately achieving success through those means. Their 2013/14 La Liga title victory came as a surprise to the unknowing, the outsiders who were unfamiliar with La Liga that year.
Inside Spain, and inside the Camp Nou on that final day of the season, the result and Atleti’s ascension was almost expected and was certainly deserved and roundly applauded. From day one they had made their mark and by the time Jornada 38 rolled around, they had nothing left to prove.
This season, while admittedly still in it’s infancy, has a similar vibe. This is a different Atletico to the one that lifted the title just over a year ago; key personnel have departed and been replaced. The style, the work ethic and core principles at the club however remain the same; intensity, passion and discipline – it’s a winning combination and thus far, the signs have been extremely encouraging for Los Colchoneros.
Their opening day win over Las Palmas didn’t raise many eyebrows, but their second win, deep in enemy territory at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan certainly did. Remember, this is a stadium where few, if any teams come and win. In the previous 17 months of football, just two teams had registered a victory in Seville; Sevilla FC themselves, and Real Madrid. Many had tried, virtually all had failed and then Atletico stroll in and simply disregard it all.
Hostile atmosphere? UEFA Champions League qualifiers? One of Spain’s best coaches ?
Who cares! They were Atleti – and they weren’t going to be denied the win. Koke struck first, Gabi doubled the lead before Jackson Martinez wrapped things up off the bench. Atletico were the first team to beat Sevilla at home by three goals since Barcelona’s 4-1 win in February 2014, and the last time prior to that was in December 2011.
It was a result that made the rest of La Liga stand up and take notice; Atletico are back and they’re ready to challenge for what they believe to be their title – and they’re not going to let anything as silly as a treble-winning FC Barcelona side stand in their way.
Do you want the good news, or the bad news? The good news is that Adriano Correia is back and cleared to make his return from injury to somewhat alleviate our (admittedly self-inflicted) full-back crisis, which to be honest, was over before it really started as Sergi Roberto also made the squad, despite initial doubts over his fitness. The bad news? Well, the majority of our squad are bound to be a little tired after the international break, while some of our star players are probably still recovering from their cross-continental treks.
For instance, Neymar and Rafinha Alcântara only recently returned from the United States – you know, that place that really hindered our form following pre-season. Obviously, both Rafinha and Neymar were excellent in their 4-1 win over USA, but it remains to be seen whether that form has survived such a long flight back to Catalunya.
The headline headed into tomorrow’s match from a Barça team news perspective has to be Claudio Bravo’s injury, as the Chilean injured his calf on international duty and is therefore set to miss the next three weeks of action. It’s frustrating, and we do lose a world-class keeper but fortunately, his deputy Marc-André ter Stegen is also quite good so, the blow has been somewhat softened. It will be the German’s La Liga debut, but really such things don’t matter – as we all know MAtS is more than capable, especially against Atleti.
In defense, I would be surprised if Sergi Roberto didn’t continue at right-back given his excellent stretch of form since converting to the backline – but with doubts over his fitness, it’s a possibility that Adriano will steal that spot. I know, it’s ironic – but don’t count it out. In the centre of defense, Gerard Piqué is still suspended, a fact that really annoys me – but hey, we have Javier Mascherano and Thomas Vermaelen, so hopefully it won’t matter too much. At left-back, rounding off the defense we will have Jordi Alba, who leads the way for assists so far for the Blaugrana in La Liga.
Isn’t early season form the best?
In midfield, Sergio Busquets will hold things together as midfield anchor and his importance will increase tenfold tomorrow against a talented, nimble yet physical Atletico Madrid midfield, not to mention against a side that thrives from set piece situations. Busquets’ tactical intelligence, all-round composure on the ball and more simply, his height will be a crucial line of defense in this high-stakes clash.
Moving forward, Ivan Rakitić and Andrés Iniesta will combine in the two advanced midfield berths and at this stage, I’d again like to mention about Iniesta’s form as of late – which has been quite honestly sublime, even by his high standards. Against Malaga, Iniesta was my Man of the Match. Then, on the international scene, Iniesta looked to be in imperious form for his country too and while that doesn’t come as a surprise to me – it will have thrown a few members of the media who were all too quick to write him off headed into this campaign.
You know what would really prove them wrong though? Another masterclass against Atleti, the title contenders...but you know, no pressure Andrés. Just do your usual thing and all will be well.
Then, up top we have the heavy hitters, the superstars – Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez. I could wax lyrical about them, but we all know their deal by now. Heck, Atletico probably know it better than anyone else – MSN tore them apart repeatedly last season and I had a literal front row seat to their coming out party against Simeone’s side in January. Spoiler: it was as fun and impressive a performance as it looked at the time – and perhaps was the turning point in our season. The time that this "club in crisis" transformed into future treble-winners.
It’s unlikely that tomorrow’s match will have that profound an effect on the rest of the season, but we can live in hope nonetheless.
From an Atleti perspective, everything is looking rosy headed into this match; there’s no suspensions, injuries or anything else negative to deal with at all; in fact, Simeone actually had a few tough decisions to make about who to leave out of his 18 man squad for the match.
The unlucky few to miss out are Guilherme Siqueira, Thomas Partey, Lucas Hernández and Angel Correa; although when you consider who has made it into the squad, tomorrow’s match gets that little bit scarier. Renato projects that Jesus Gamez will get the nod at left-back ahead of Filipe Luis tomorrow; I’m not so sure, but at the same time, having a right-footed player to defend against Messi cutting inside could be logical.
Atletico Madrid: WW
Atletico Madrid 0-1 FC Barcelona – 17th May 2015 – La Liga
Lionel Messi’s strike was enough to separate the two sides on the night and ultimately secure the title for the Blaugrana, in what was to become a memorable season for Luis Enrique’s side.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Mascherano, Vermaelen, Alba; Busquets, Rakitić, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Atletico (4-2-2-2): Oblak; Juanfran, Godin, Gimenez, Filipe Luis; Gabi, Tiago; Koke, Oilver; Griezmann, Jackson
Too close to call...almost. I’m backing Neymar to come up big, and Barça to just scrape through with a narrow, late winner. 2-1 Barça.