The match of the season in Spain usually pits a different team from the capital city against Barcelona, but the work done with Atletico Madrid over the last two years finds them, at the moment, as joint leaders in the La Liga and the biggest challenge for the league champions.
The most talked about player before the match, obviously, is Lionel Messi. After missing two months of football, the Argentine came back in the Copa Del Rey match against Getafe to score two goals in 26 minutes on the pitch. It doesn’t mean he’ll start despite the magnitude of the match against Atletico, as Barca managed to do well without him when the two teams collided in the Supercoppa five months ago.
For Atletico, this is their biggest chance to show Spain and Europe that they’re for real. Ever since winning the title in 1996 they haven’t been this close to it as they are now, but it’s quite interesting to see that unlike their two big rivals, they’ve enjoyed an enormous amount of fortune to have their key players remain injury free, which manages to hide their huge inferiority when it comes to their depth, as this excellent graph by @behnisch and Goallegacy.net shows us.
But aside from Mario Suarez who is doubtful for this match, the injury sheet is a clean slate for Atletico Madrid, with Koke and Diego Costa obviously looked at as the key players to get the team a win that will give them sole custody over the top spot in Spain. Atletico did give Barcelona a very hard time in the two matches earlier this season, but aside from defending very well and ruining Barcelona’s possession style, they failed to create too many dangerous opportunities.
For both teams the purpose in their tactical approach will be to draw out the defense and mess with the formations. Atletico play a narrow style with Arda Turan and Koke constantly pushing towards the middle. With or without Messi, Barcelona will look to create space for Neymar, Pedro and Alexis Sanchez, hopefully in one on one situations. Atletico will be looking for the vast spaces Barcelona leave behind with their two attacking wing backs and Javier Mascherano, who’ll never be completely accustomed to playing as a centre back.
Prediction – Messi will play, but not the full 90 minutes. The Barcelona of Tata Martino might not be the exciting version we know from the past, but it doesn’t mean they’re inferior to the team from last year. While a draw seems like something both teams will be pleased with, Barcelona probably have a bit more to finish as winners in this one.