preview | 2017-01-31
Match Preview - Spanish Cup Semifinals - Atletico Madrid vs Barcelona
Lucho's men visit El Calderon seeking to reach the Spanish Cup final for the fourth consecutive time
Barcelona travel to the Vicente Calderón on Wednesday to take on Atlético Madrid in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey. Both sides will see this as their best chance to pick up a domestic trophy this season as they are currently well behind Real Madrid at the top of La Liga.
Barcelona had been on a run of good results prior to the 1-1 draw with Real Betis on Sunday that has left them four points behind their title rivals having played a game more that Real. Barça had appeared to be turning a corner after a disappointing start to 2017 but unfortunately all the old habits and issues that saw them fall behind in the title race were evident and in full view during Sunday’s lacklustre display.
It has been well documented that Barcelona have struggled in midfield this season and once more they lost the battle in the middle of the park. Barça struggled to get the ball to the front players and yet again the forwards didn’t go out of their way to come into deeper areas to take some of the pressure of the defence and midfield.
It’s difficult to blame the midfield as there were a number of key absentees including Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Rafinha. One permanent fixture this season has been Luis Enrique not really knowing who his best midfielders are after Busquets and Iniesta and once again he made strange changes to try and find a winning formula.
In the midweek win over Real Sociedad he started with Denis Suárez, Javier Mascherano and André Gomes with Ivan Rakitic seeing action from the bench. In the draw with Betis only Denis retained his place with Rakitic and Arda Turan starting alongside him in midfield. Gomes came off the bench and in perhaps the most bizarre turn of events yet Aleix Vidal even saw some time in midfield when Sergi Roberto came on to play right back. Rotation is part and parcel of modern football but why is our manager rotating the players who don’t play every week anyway?
Another issue that raised it’s ugly head again was the lack of work rate from the forwards. The midfield was clearly struggling to deal with an energetic Betis side and Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi simply didn’t do enough to support them. When Barcelona were at their best they were constantly harassing opposition players but yesterday the Betis defence and midfield were put under no pressure at all. Several times this season the Barcelona attack could be accused of only turning up once they fell behind and it was never so evident as it was yesterday. Suárez has made a career of putting defenders under pressure and scored a goal directly from doing just that in last weekend’s win over Eibar but the Uruguayan was largely anonymous until he converted the equaliser in the dying minutes. Similarly Messi is very much the leader of this Barcelona side regardless of whether it’s he or Iniesta wearing the armband. When Messi ups the workrate it lifts everyone and rightfully so. If the best player in the world can put in effort for the team then they have no excuse not to follow suit. Messi is electric when he has the ball but yesterday was a game where he seemed content to stand in Suarez’s shadow while the match went on 20 yards behind them. He is capable of better and if Barcelona are going to have any success this season we need Messi involved in the play as much as possible and preferably before the game is sliding out of our grip.
Sadly, Sunday’s draw will also be remembered for yet another incompetent display from the match officials. Many Culés talk of conspiracies and while we would like to believe that’s not the case the argument for them is growing week by week. Minutes after Barcelona fell behind they scored an equaliser but the referee and his assistants failed to spot the ball a yard behind the line and play continued. Obviously, Barcelona went on to equalise eventually but if the referee had awarded the goal then Barcelona would have had longer to search for a winner. We will never know if they would have went on to win the game but the fact is they were denied the opportunity to do so.
Another subtle “mistake” from the officials came right at the end of the game. They signalled for three additional minutes which was probably fair enough considering it hadn’t been a particularly dirty game but during the three minutes a Betis player lay on the deck for 35 seconds between 91:15 and 91:50 yet the referee blew the final whistle bang on 93:00. Did he really just let the Betis player run 35 seconds off the clock? It appears he did but then again Barcelona fans are paranoid aren’t we?
Catalan newspaper, Sport ran an article on Monday claiming wrong decisions in La Liga have cost Barcelona a total of six points this season with referees costing Barça seven points and Barça gaining one point when Juanmi’s shot for Real Sociedad crossed the line which once again raised the argument for goal line technology in Spanish football. Naturally, those numbers aren’t conclusive as there are a number of variables that could have worked out differently if the referees had got the calls right at the time but with football being the multi-million Euro business that it is today, those “honest mistakes” have been extremely costly to Barcelona. Either way whether you believe in the conspiracy theories or not La Liga has an issue with referees and they are either corrupt or incompetent, neither of which are acceptable.
Barcelona’s opponents on Wednesday night, Atlético Madrid, have also been enduring a disappointing season. They are currently fourth in La Liga, six points behind Barcelona and ten behind city rivals, Real, who also have a game in hand on Diego Simeone’s men. Much of the damage was done in 2016 and they have only lost one of their last ten games in all competitions although that includes draws in their last three games two of which were in La Liga. Defensively they are still as good as ever with only Villarreal (14) conceding fewer than their 16 goals but they have struggled in front of goal this season with their 34 goals well below the 51 and 52 that Real and Barcelona have scored this season.
Simeone will be without several players for the game against Barça with Tiago, Augusto Fernández, Jan Oblak, José María Giménez and Thomas all set to miss out. Angel Correa also missed training on Monday but he may be fit for the game. It’s unlikely that Atlético will spring too many surprises on Wednesday and Barcelona have faced them enough times in recent years to know exactly what they will be up against. They will be physical, well organised and deadly on the counter attack as they always have been under Diego Simeone. Since Luis Enrique took over as Barcelona manager, Barça have had the better of the rivalry with seven wins in his first seven games against Atleti. Since then Simeone has come out on top with a 2-0 win at the Calderón knocking Barcelona out of the Champions League last season then an Angel Correa goal was enough to earn Atlético a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou in September.
If Barcelona are to get a positive result in Madrid it looks like they will have to do it without Iniesta and Busquets who have still not returned to training after their recent injuries. Rafinha may be available as he has been training with the group although he is yet to receive medical clearance and this game may come a little too soon for the Brazilian. Iniesta and Busquets absences will be a huge blow to Luis Enrique as Atleti are the last team you want to be showing any weakness too and you can be sure Simeone will be targeting that area as one his team can exploit. Barcelona really need their big players to stand up and be counted in this one as otherwise the club could be realistically looking at the Champions League as the only realistic chance of silverware this season.
It’s difficult to know how Luis Enrique will approach this game as his team selections have been impossible to second guess. MSN will no doubt start and Piqué will be in defence. Outside those four anything could happen. Jasper Cillessen appears to be the Copa goalkeeper but will he remain so for such a big game? Sergi Roberto, Jordi Alba and Samuel Umtiti are probably first choice and should start but it wouldn’t necessarily be wise to put money on them joining Piqué in the back four that starts the game. The midfield will depend on the outcome of the dartboard game that Luis Enrique seems to play when choosing which of about eight players will get a start. As already stated MSN will start as Lucho doesn’t seem interested in rotating the players who play every game and are probably most in need of a break. That said it’s not necessarily his fault as a lot of money was spent in the summer with really only Umtiti being a serious contender to start and the rest not really showing the quality required to be a Barcelona player on a consistent basis.
Atlético on their day are a very good side and Simeone is one of the world’s best coaches. They can beat any team in the world and have done so on a regular basis over the last three years. Their league form arguably makes them an even more dangerous opponent as they have it in them to play at the top level and with their league chances gone they will be right up for this game. With Busquets and Iniesta out this will be a very difficult away game for Barcelona and a draw really would be a great result for the team to keep the tie in the balance until the home game next week when hopefully Barça will be better placed to earn a place in the final of the Copa del Rey.
Jester in Black
Ricardo de Burgos Bengoetxea will be the man making the “honest mistakes” on Wednesday night. In his last five in charge of Barça they have won four and drew one. In those games he booked five Barcelona players and awarded them three penalties. He has refereed Atleti on three occasions with Atlético winning all three games. In those games he booked four Atleti players.
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WRITTEN BY: Gerry Johnston
Gerry Johnston is a 31 year old Civil Servant from County Antrim, Ireland. Gerry has been writing about football for various websites since Euro 2012 and he has been a Barcelona fan since the mid 90s.