matchdays | 2017-02-25
Match Preview - La Liga Round 24 - Atlético Madrid vs Barcelona
Barcelona travel to Madrid on Sunday afternoon knowing a win will see them go top of La Liga for a few hours at least with Real Madrid not playing until later on Sunday
Barcelona’s title hopes received a huge boost on Wednesday evening when Real Madrid travelled to Valencia to play their league game that was missed in December when they were participating in the FIFA Club World Cup. Many believed Real would be too strong for a Valencia side that has struggled this season but once again Los Blancos came unstuck against a side that they have only beaten once in their last six meetings. Real’s defeat means that they are still only one point clear of Barcelona and now only have one game in hand on the Catalans. The door is now open for Barcelona to mount a title challenge in what has been, for the most part, a disappointing season but do Luis Enrique’s men have what it takes to challenge Madrid?
Barcelona’s form in La Liga has been extremely inconsistent as they have struggled to field the same team two weeks in a row. There has been times when changes were forced due to injury and suspension but the manager has also done little to help the situation with his endless, unnecessary changes, particularly in the middle of the park and it has led to some mediocre displays from a world class team. The worst of those displays came less than two weeks ago when Barcelona’s Champions League campaign was all but ended by Paris St Germain who ran out 4-0 winners in the Parc des Princes. Barcelona will get the chance to avenge that defeat ten days after this game when they host PSG in the second leg at Camp Nou but in truth Barça don’t really look like a team who are on the verge of one of the greatest comebacks in the history of football.
The display on Sunday evening against Leganés was largely disappointing and they had to rely on a late Lionel Messi penalty to secure the three points in a game that most Culés thought would see some sort of a reaction after the pathetic defeat in Paris five days earlier. That reaction never really materialised as Barcelona made hard work of their less illustrious opponents and the only real reaction worth speaking of or to be more accurate “lack of reaction” was Messi not showing emotion when scoring the late winner. While it’s perhaps to his credit that the best player in the history of the game doesn’t feel that a last minute winner at home to Leganés is worth celebrating it is also a little bit worrying when you look at the bigger picture in terms of his contract situation, comments from board members in recent teams, his legal troubles and what at times has appeared to be disinterest in some games this season. Barcelona fans will always have Messi on a pedestal and rightly so considering what he has done in his time at the club. Culés are a bit like the person who has the best looking partner in town and will constantly worry that we’re not doing enough to keep them happy. Any sign of discontentment from Messi will always be met with worry but my own personal opinion is that he is going nowhere in the near future and when he does go it won’t be off the back of a 4-0 defeat to PSG or any other team. He is a winner and I fully expect he will either leave on a high or when he believes he is no longer good enough to perform at the top level and he certainly looks capable of carrying on for at least a few more years.
If Barcelona are to get their title challenge back on track they really couldn’t be taking on a more difficult challenge than Atlético Madrid. Diego Simeone’s men aren’t having the best of seasons this year and sit 4th in La Liga but they look to have turned a corner recently and will give Luis Enrique’s side as tough a challenge as anyone. As usual Atlético have one of the most stubborn backlines in Spanish football with only Villarreal holding a better defensive record in La Liga. In their last eight La Liga games they have won six and drew two and their record at home is particular impressive with just one defeat in La Liga at home this season. That record wasn’t quite as impressive in the Copa del Rey with their only two competitive defeats in 2017 coming in the Copa at the Calderón with Las Palmas and Barcelona both winning there. Recent games between Atleti and Barcelona have been tight with two draws and both sides winning one in the last four meetings between the sides. Before that Barcelona had won seven in a row which came at the end of a run of six games without a win so the only thing you can really guarantee in these games is that they will be tough, tense affairs.
If Simeone’s men are going to trouble Barcelona they will have to do so without the injured Tiago, Augusto Fernández and Juanfran but they will be boosted by the news that Diego Godin looks to be available for selection and the Uruguayan centre back should start in what will undoubtedly be another physical battle between Godin and his international colleague, Luis Suárez. Simeone will have a few decisions to make in regards to his lineup with arguably the toughest being picking between Fernando Torres or Kevin Gameiro as Antoine Griezmann’s strike partner. Torres has haunted Barcelona many times but Gameiro scored a hat trick last weekend and should join his fellow French man in attack.
Barcelona should be able to field their first choice eleven with their only casualties being Javier Mascherano and Aleix Vidal. Neither seem to be Lucho’s first pick anyway so he will be able to pick the “Gala 11” although that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to predict Barcelona’s starting line up. 10 of the 11 starters are quite clear but I don’t think anyone is any wiser to whom Luis Enrique regards as his third man in midfield. The number of different combinations in midfield this season has been quite ridiculous but my own personal opinion is Ivan Rakitic is the best defensively and should therefore start in what looks like a difficult away game against one of the best teams in Europe. When these sides met a few weeks ago at the Calderón in the Copa del Rey injuries forced Luis Enrique to start with a rather defensive midfield and the first half of that game is probably the best I have saw Barcelona play in recent weeks. Barcelona dictated the game and Suárez also played a key role by tracking back on the right wing to give Barça a balanced look that has been all too infrequent this season.
Quite what this game represents is not really clear. It could be the beginning of a great run to a third successive La Liga title or it could be the beginning of the end of Barcelona’s dominance but one thing I hope it does bring is some solidarity between players, management and fans. There is a clear split between the fan base with regards to certain players and even the manager and the players are obviously well aware of it after what happened last Sunday at Camp Nou. These things are not helping and regardless of what happens over the next few weeks nobody is going anywhere until the summer at the earliest. People will leave this summer with players and quite probably the management going so why not get behind the cause for three months? The team has an opportunity now and they will undoubtedly do their utmost to get what’s best for the club and it is about time the fans came together to show the rest of Spanish football why we are “Més que un club.”
Sunday’s game will be refereed by Mateu Lahoz. In Barca’s last five with him in charge they have a perfect record of five victories. In those games he has shown Barça players ten yellow cards and awarded them one penalty. In his last five Atlético players they have four wins and a defeat. In these games he has booked 13 Atleti players and awarded one penalty against them.