The eyes of the world will be on the Camp Nou tomorrow as the UEFA Champions League returns in quite grandiose fashion with the tie of the round, as reigning, defending European champions FC Barcelona take on La Liga rivals Atletico Madrid in what many have dubbed the most intriguing quarter-final of the year.
Already billed as the closest of the quarter-finals, Barcelona’s El Clasico defeat this past weekend to eternal rivals Real Madrid has added yet another fascinating subplot to this game. After going 39 matches without defeat, the Blaugrana faltered when some may argue it mattered most and in quite hyperbolic fashion, the media would have you believe that their season is at a crossroad as a direct consequence of the loss.
As we approach what is without a doubt the business end of the season, there are now question marks surrounding the fitness of our squad, the motivation of each player and even the tactical nous of Luis Enrique. Is the fabled ‘MSN’ trident of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar as unstoppable as once suggested? Are there any other ludicrous questions we could ask to help us overreact to a single defeat?
While Barcelona were of course undefeated, no-one ever suggested that they were undefeatable. Like every other team, Barça had their weaknesses and they were exploited by a smart gameplan from Zinedine Zidane, which was executed well by his star-studded squad. Let’s not forget that Barcelona were, by popular consensus, playing one of the five best teams in the world either. Losing El Clasico is never fun, and always immensely frustrating, but it is part and parcel of being a Culé just as much as victory is.
Even so, on another night it all could have ended so differently. What if Luis Suarez had converted the early chance afforded to him by some lax defending? What if Sergio Ramos had been sent off earlier in the match for one of his previous offenses? These "what ifs" will hardly help us move past the defeat, but they do help remind us that we weren’t all that far away from potentially winning either.
In other words, have a little faith – we still got this.
La Liga remains ours to lose, and while it’s true that we have a long way to go before we can even mention a certain word beginning with "t", few could argue that they’ve seen enough to rule the Blaugrana out of the running either in Europe, or in the Copa del Rey.
In Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, Barcelona have been paired against arguably the best remaining team in the competition. This is a tie that would have made a fitting final at the San Siro, but perhaps is better suited for a two-legged knockout affair. Atletico are billed as the knockout competition experts in one corner, the plucky underdogs going toe-to-toe with the champion, who is reeling after their first knockdown in recent memory.
Will the challengers be able to deliver a knockout blow, or will it be the champion who finds a second wind to silence the doubters?
No news is good news as far as FC Barcelona are concerned. Gerard Pique served his one-game suspension for yellow card accumulation in this competition against Arsenal in the prior round, and the Blaugrana made it through that match without any further incident. The only absentee from the squad that featured that night at the Camp Nou is Jeremy Mathieu, who has been ruled out for over a month with a torn meniscus.
All this means that Luis Enrique has a near full complement of players to choose from for this match, and therefore is free to ring the changes if he was indeed displeased with the performance of any of his players during the Clasico. Instead, he is likely to be more critical of himself – some of his own decisions didn’t work on Saturday, and the Asturian would probably be the first to admit just that. Deploying Lionel Messi in a central role didn’t work, while his substitutions left a lot to be desired for the second game in succession.
Seldom though has Luis Enrique made the same mistakes in three consecutive matches; after drawing and losing (or losing and drawing) in successive matches, the Blaugrana have always rebounded to claim victory in match number three. Factor in his 100% record against Diego Simeone as Barcelona head coach, and his incredible knockout record, whereby Barça have won every single two-legged knockout tie they’ve played under him by a two-goal aggregate margin – or more – and there’s reason to be optimistic.
As such, expect minimal changes from the side that lost at the weekend; Marc-Andre ter Stegen will of course rotate in to take his place between the sticks as is customary in the UEFA Champions League, but ahead of that, I’d be surprised to see more than one change to the line-up. Dani Alves played well for the most part on Saturday both offensively and defensively, although he did lose the ball more often as the game progressed. Whether Enrique has the faith in Aleix Vidal however to deliver in these big matches remains to be seen.
Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano were both exceptional against the dynamic Real attack, who despite their goals actually struggled to create many chances. Jordi Alba was the only weaklink in that backline, but of course he was ruthlessly exploited on numerous occasions in a move that ultimately won the game for Zidane’s side. Then again, he’s the best we’ve got – and on his night, we know he can perform much better.
Sergio Busquets was also pretty good on Saturday, as was Ivan Rakitic who performed well in an unusual position. The fact that he was substituted before the end suggests to me that he will start tomorrow, but don’t count out Sergi Roberto, who increasingly looks to be one of our best midfield options. Andres Iniesta also looked sharp, the problem was more that the midfield was congested with Messi’s presence, while the rest of the frontline also struggled to provide him with an option in possession.
Speaking of the trio, was that performance a result of a rare off night, signs of fatigue after the international break, or simply an excellent gameplan from Zidane? Most people would suggest one of the former two options, the first of which would be the dream scenario for Culés. The second would suggest that more trouble may be ahead against Atleti, while the latter would be ruinous if Simeone could replicate.
What’s your money on?
Rewind a week and it was Atletico Madrid, not FC Barcelona, who were deemed to be fatigued and slowing to a crawl as the finishing line approaches this season. They had gone ahead on the night against lowly Sporting Gijon, only for the hosts to fight back and score two late goals to secure a surprise victory. Against PSV, they struggled. While their defense was as solid as ever, the attackers just weren’t delivering. After 210 scoreless minutes, it was a penalty from full-back Juanfran that booked their place in the quarter-finals.
And that’s how easy it is to shape a narrative; conveniently gloss over their incredible clean sheet streak, strong performances in the derby and against us in a defeat, not to mention their huge win over Real Betis at the weekend and this match seems easier. Of course, it won’t be – it never is against Atletico Madrid since Simeone took charge.
Diego Godin is expected to be fit to play after missing the 5-1 win, and Stefan Savic is back from injury as well, even if he is unlikely to unseat Jose Maria Gimenez in the heart of defense. In fact, Diego Simeone has taken his entire squad, perhaps as a show of strength – he has all 24 players to pick from and he’s determined to keep us guessing right up until kick-off.
FC Barcelona 2-1 Atletico Madrid – 30th January 2016 – La Liga
The Blaugrana came from behind to claim victory in this ill-tempered affair, as Atletico Madrid ended the match with nine men as Filipe Luis and Diego Godin both saw red.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Atletico (4-2-2-2): Oblak; Juanfran, Godin, Gimenez, Luis; Gabi, Tiago; Koke, Saul; Griezmann, Torres
That this is most tense match of the season, and that a real prediction would probably jinx the team