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Keys to the Game: Barcelona vs Atletico Madrid

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It all comes down to this

Atletico Madrid v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

It’s been a long and winding road for Barca fans.

No one could say where this season was going to take us. There have been disappointments, and pleasant surprises, but at the end of the day, with four games to go, a La Liga title is within reach.

From the beginning, this date with Atletico Madrid has been circled on the calendar.

Everything is now on the line. All that hard work, and emotional investment.

This is the final judgment for players and coaches alike, because ultimately what we remember is how the story ends.

It all comes down to this culers.

Don’t play it safe

Valencia CF v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by Aitor Alcalde Colomer/Getty Images

Perhaps the greatest weakness of this team over the years has been a tendency to play it safe. Resting on our laurels.

With so much skill, and a possession heavy mindset, it’s easy to revert to it over the course of so many 90 minute games in increasingly dense seasons.

In a way it’s the curse of Guardiola. You retain his structure and mechanics, but forget the key ingredient for success. Intensity.

Going into this game against Atletico Madrid, a few things are known.

First, the Colchoneros are more progressive with the ball. They retain more possession, and with the likes of Luis Suarez, Angel Correa, and Yannick Carrasco, have more goal scoring diversity.

Second, they haven’t lost a step defensively. The same Diego Simeone identity is there.

For perspective, they have scored more goals (61), and allowed less goals (22), than Real Madrid. They lead the league on goals allowed.

But they have also dropped in form. Unlike an experienced Zidane coached team who knows how to grind out must win games, Atletico Madrid is less tested, giving Barcelona an opportunity to take advantage of their shaky confidence.

What does not playing it safe look like?

Pressing high up the field to disrupt the build up. Griezmann, Pedri, and Frenkie will be called upon to provide that.

Getting the ball wide, and firing threatening balls into the box. This depends on the coaching staff imploring players to make runs and become targets. Atletico Madrid is betting that Barca won’t do it, and will yield the space.

Catch them off guard and pull one past them.

More than anything else, it’s bringing the right energy and sustaining it throughout. It’s not whether you win or lose, especially against other elite teams, but how it happens.

Leave it all out on the field.

Griezmann steps up in another big game

Valencia CF v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by Aitor Alcalde Colomer/Getty Images

Give the man credit, Antoine Griezmann has stepped up in big moments.

Messi is still the primary goal scorer, but when a moment of magic is needed in a desperate situation, Griezmann has answered the call.

Against Villarreal, it was a moment of incredible class, equalizing in a massive game within a minute, with a cheeky chip over the goalie.

Against Valencia, the goal wasn’t spectacular, putting one away that dropped at his feet, but he deserves credit for staying with the play.

Ronald Koeman has made it clear he’s riding with Griezmann over Ousmane Dembele down the stretch. This is not a small decision.

A responsibility now falls on his shoulders.

I have no doubt that Griezmann will be energetic and hard working.

The question will be if he can make things happen in the final third.

Without a true striker, Barcelona need someone to create danger in the box.

They may need a moment of brilliance.

Griezmann cannot disappear. He must make his presence felt. The game depends on it.

Smart in possession to prevent danger on the counter

Atletico de Madrid v SD Eibar - La Liga Santander Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Atletico Madrid would be happy to give possession to Barcelona.

Last time, it was Yannick Carrasco hiding in the shadows, waiting for his moment to stick in the dagger.

Pretty much all teams approach Barcelona in this way.

Villarreal and Granada made Barca pay with identical goals, leaving Ter Stegen out to dry.

Barcelona need to be intentional about what they are doing with the ball.

Possession for the sake of it creates a false sense of security. So what are they actually doing with it?

Are runs being made off the ball? In the moment that possession is gained, are they looking to press the advantage, or are they content with slowing down the rhythm of the game?

If it’s a close game, the passing needs to be fast, with an eye up the field.

If they let up, Atletico Madrid will be content, knowing at any moment the decisive opportunity to take advantage of a defensive mistake will present itself.

The Colchoneros are loaded with talent.

An experienced back three in Mario Hermoso, Jose Gimenez, and Stefan Savic, who can deal with predictability just fine.

A whole cast of experienced characters in the midfield who know how to follow and execute orders in Koke, Saul, and Marcos Llorente.

True goal scorers in Suarez, Correa, and Carrasco.

Barcelona will need to play their best game, and they will need to play to win.

So much is on the line. For both teams, it’s all or nothing. A chance for glory or heartbreak.

Time to step up and reap the rewards of a long and challenging season.