Biggest game of the season? You betcha!
FC Barcelona will be looking to pile the pressure on league leaders, Real Madrid tomorrow afternoon, and ease the anxiety amongst Culés as they travel to the Spanish capital to take on Atletico Madrid for the final time at the Vicente Calderon. With the Blaugrana set to contest the 2017 Copa del Rey final at the Calderon in May, this will not be the final time that Luis Enrique’s side step out onto the hallowed turf, but it will represent the final showdown in these surroundings for such familiar rivals.
The Blaugrana and Atleti have squared off a lot over the years, and no more frequently than they have in the past few seasons. Tomorrow’s match will be the sixth time this campaign that Luis Enrique and Diego Simeone have done battle, and arguably as a 90 minute match, it will be the most important of the bunch.
After all, the Copa del Rey semi-final was contested over two legs, meaning that the importance of each 90 minutes was perhaps lessened by the fact it was followed or proceeded by another match – but this time there’s no chance to make amends, it’s do or die for each side and the stakes are tremendously high.
For the hosts, they will want to send off the Calderon with a win; this has been a historic fixture for years and the thought of closing the Calderon after losses at home to both Real Madrid and FC Barcelona must be a horrifying prospect for Atleti fans across the world. The for the visitors, the pressure is well and truly on Luis Enrique and the squad as a whole after they were embarrassed by Paris Saint-Germain, and last weekend’s narrow victory over Leganes did nothing to allay concerns that Barcelona are in something of a spiral.
Oh yeah, and after Real Madrid lost in midweek to Valencia, the title race is closer than it has been in at least a couple of months.
Less than a month ago, FC Barcelona travelled to Madrid and put on a show in the first-half at the Vicente Calderon, storming ahead into a 2-0 lead courtesy of goals from Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi Despite a spirited fightback, Barcelona held on for the win and all but secured their place in the Copa del Rey final in the process. Is it so hard to believe that the same team cannot secure a similar result tomorrow afternoon?
Confidence may be low, and the system may not be firing on all cylinders, but that’s no reason to abandon all hope. All it takes is one goal, one good performance and the machine could be working smoothly again. Sure, it might look tough – but typically, that has been when this team and this collective group has thrived. With their backs against the wall, FC Barcelona typically respond.
Will they be able to respond one more time tomorrow, or will Atletico Madrid and Diego Simeone crush the visitor’s hopes and send Luis Enrique home empty-handed?
For Luis Enrique, the midweek break will have come at just the right time; his squad were short on confidence and clearly physically and mentally fatigued by their exhausting stretch of games from January to the middle of this month. Key players were unfit, or at least fighting off niggling injuries and the week off should have helped ease all those problems.
Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Javier Mascherano, Sergio Busquets, Arda Turan; the list goes on and on, and Luis Enrique should be able to not only count on them all to make the squad, but also deliver a performance.
Overall, there are only a few selection dilemmas for Luis Enrique to address. The first concerns the centre of defense, as Samuel Umtiti has performed admirably but does not offer the leadership that Javier Mascherano brings to the team. In tough situations, the squad needs a player of Mascherano’s mindset to give them strength for the fight ahead and this could be one of those situations.
Similarly, he could deploy Mascherano in a more advanced position as pivote, perhaps then shifting altogether to a 4-2-3-1 system. Personally, I don’t feel as though this offers the solution that some think it may provide; while Mascherano could assist defensively and partner up with Sergi Roberto, it only places more pressure on Neymar and Lionel Messi, drawing them further away from goal were they of course tend to be most effective.
Provided Enrique sticks with the 4-3-3, the choice is then between Ivan Rakitic, Rafinha, Denis Suarez and Andre Gomes for the spot on the right – and simply put, the Croatian midfielder is perhaps our only real option for a match like this. Rafinha offers more going forward, but defensively he does not provide the same stability that Rakitic offers – provided he is fully fit and on form.
The headline news for the hosts is that Diego Godin is back and set to return to the starting line-up. The Uruguayan has been absent through injury, and while Atletico have recovered form without him, they are undoubtedly a better side with him leading the defense. However, while Godin returns, Tiago, Juanfran and Augusto Fernandez all remain absent through injury which in turns leaves the Atleti backline looking a little more vulnerable than they might normally be.
On the other hand, with Kevin Gameiro showing signs that he may finally be finding form after his big money move from Sevilla in the summer, Simeone may even back his side to outscore the Blaugrana, particularly given Barcelona’s struggle to create chances in recent matches.
Atletico Madrid: LWDWWW
FC Barcelona 1-1 Atletico Madrid – 7th February 2016 – Copa del Rey
A second-half equaliser from Kevin Gameiro ensured for a nervous ending in this ill-tempered, strangely officiated match as Sergi Roberto, Yannick Carrasco and Luis Suarez all saw red in this 1-1 draw.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Atletico (4-2-2-2): Oblak; Vrjsalko, Godin, Savic, Filipe; Koke, Gabi; Saul, Carrasco; Griezmann, Gameiro
As much as I think we are capable of getting the win, I also think that Atleti are getting back to their best. 1-1.