With Atletico Madrid facing an ongoing injury crisis, Barcelona will have a first-rate opportunity to pick up some points at the Wanda Metropolitano on Saturday. What Barca will have to consider, however, is the depth of talent that currently graces this Atletico side as well as the tactical genius of Diego Simeone, who will undoubtedly have some contingency plans up his sleeve. Let’s take a look at how Atletico might line up this weekend, and what Barca will need to do to extinguish the threat posed by the team putting pressure on them at the top of the La Liga standings.
Atletico are bound to have a gaping hole at the back, with four of their premium options at centre-back struggling with injury. This includes the injury of club captain and talisman Diego Godin, along with regular defensive options Jose Gimenez, Stefan Savic and Lucas Hernandez either being ruled out of the clash or doubtful.
With such a high volume of injuries, Atletico will most likely resort to utilising Francisco Montero, who started against Athletic Bilbao, and potentially shift another player out of position to accompany Montero in the centre. Manager Diego Simeone has also hinted at the possibility of shifting Saul into defence to assist in this dire circumstance.
Whilst Saul is an incredibly versatile and accomplished player, and has played as a centre in the past for Atletico as well as for former club Rayo Vallecano, one cannot expect him to play to the golden standard of Godin, Gimenez or Hernandez. He simply has not had enough experience in this position to build up the consistency and expert mentality that the regular defenders have exhibited week in and week out. Whilst Montero is a talented prospect, he has only played three matches for the Atletico first team and may not have the temperament to cope with Barca’s attacking line-up. This would be an opportune time for Barca to take plenty of shots, where the likes of Coutinho, Dembele and Messi cut into the centre and test the keeper whilst players in the centre burst forward in an effort to pressurise a vulnerable Atletico back line. It is also of particular importance that Barca test Atletico number one Oblak from a multitude of angles and distances, as this is a keeper who will be sure to be on his game come match day.
Atletico have had a little less misfortune in midfield, as only Koke is doubtful with a muscle injury. He is reported to be back in training, and may make an appearance on the weekend. Even if Koke does not appear, Barca will still have to consider the threat posed by the likes of Thomas, Vitolo and Rodri, all of whom have done well to provide the Atletico midfield with stability and supply attackers with many goal scoring opportunities this season. Whilst Barca’s defence can normally be trusted to cope with even the best midfield options, the Blaugranes’ recent performances at the back have left a lot to be desired. Barca are leaking goals as of late, and have conceded an unbelievable seven goals in only their last three matches. Unfortunately the main source of errors have seemed to come from those in the centre, namely Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet. A failure to stay on their markers as well as allowing gaping holes in the penalty box resulted in goals for Joaquin and Sergio Canales of Real Betis in Barca’s last match, and it is safe to assume that neither of these goals would have been scored if Barca’s defence was on top of their game. Some defensive mistakes by Sergi Roberto have also lead to unwarranted goals, with the failure to tackle Icardi of Inter Milan and a poor attempt of closing down Junior Firpo of Real Betis being clear standout moments of weakness.
In order to patch up Barca’s defensive weaknesses, some support will need to be derived from the midfield, primarily from midfielders who display defensive prowess. Whilst Sergio Busquets is the ultimate defensive midfield choice, another suitable option would be Arturo Vidal, a box to box player with the ability to burst forward on the attack yet still track back to support his defenders. Vidal could surely play in the place of the suspended Ivan Rakitic, thereby completing the midfield trio alongside Busquets and Arthur.
Whilst Diego Costa is doubtful with a foot injury, Atletico’s other main attacking options including Antoine Griezmann, Angel Correa and Nikola Kalinic look set to appear this Saturday. Barca will need to remedy their defensive woes and fast, as this is a prime opportunity to take advantage of a battered Atletico Madrid side, and an opportunity such as this might not come knocking again.