Atletico Madrid Versus Barcelona: The Stage Is Set For La Liga’s First Place Showdown

(For US viewers: Atletico Madrid v. Barcelona will be shown LIVE on Saturday, January 11th at 2pm EST on beINSPORT)

For the first time in recent history, there’s a fixture on the La Liga schedule worth watching other than ‘El Clasico’. Atletico Madrid v. Barcelona won’t rival the global television ratings produced by the bi-annual El Clasicos, but this game will still pull in a massive viewing audience from hardcore football fans from inside and outside of Spain.

Following their respective league wins on Saturday and Sunday, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona will finally lock horns at the Vicente Calderón Stadium next Saturday in a match that will determine first place in La Liga. This is the match which experts, as well as Spanish football fans, have pointed towards since very early in the Primera Division schedule.

Both clubs currently sit on top of La Liga after accumulating 49 points, with Barcelona holding a narrow goal difference advantage over the Atleti. Each team is on course to amass over 100 points in the Spanish Primera Division and have advanced to the Last 16 of the Champions League as their respective group winners; the Atleti are one of only three teams to go through the group stages undefeated.

Only an away goal separated the two clubs when they met in August during the Spanish Super Cup. The signs that this season in La Liga was going to be different were seen early on as David Villa’s volley put Atletico on top in the 12th minute. But Brazilian superstar Neymar scored with a 66th minute header which salvaged a crucial draw for Barcelona in the first leg. The clubs then battled to a nil-nil draw at the Camp Nou, which was enough to hand Barcelona their eleventh Spanish Super Cup.

Barcelona has been ‘the’ club in Spain for close to a decade; and arguably the best club in Europe over that time. Since 2004-2005, the Catalan club has won six La Liga titles, two Copa del Rey cups and three Champions League titles.

But the ‘way’ Barcelona plays is more important than winning trophies in the minds of many of their supporters…as crazy as that may sound to people outside of the Catalan club. For many of them, Barcelona is a different kind of club; it’s about ‘how’ it’s done.

When Pep Guardiola was promoted to first team manager from Barcelona’s B-team in 2008, the club had just finished eighteen points behind Real Madrid in La Liga. The manager immediately began to mold the squad into the one he had envisioned. Guardiola let go of three big name players: Ronaldinho, Deco, Samuel Eto’o.

The manager already had Lionel Messi, Xavi and Iniesta in the squad; then Guardiola brought in Gerard Pique, Dani Alves and promoted Sergio Busquets from the Catalan club’s B-team. How Guardiola envisioned and ultimately utilized those players would eventually have a huge impact on Barcelona and European football’s history.

Guardiola’s philosophy was an extension of the one founded by legendary European footballer and manager, Johan Cruyff. He blended a high pressing style with short passing and movement; working the ball through various channels and maintaining possession; or “tiki-taka”. But whatever you choose to call it, the work ethic and tactical intelligence Guardiola brought to Barcelona was the key to sculpting one of the greatest club sides ever witnessed.

That’s why even as Barcelona have amassed 49 points in eighteen La Liga matches (five points from maximum league points) fans of the Catalan club are complaining about the ‘way’ the club has been winning. Supporters feel that Barcelona have stopped playing “beautiful football”.

A large section of Barcelona supporters aren’t happy with new manager Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino’s tactics. Their judgment is that Barcelona has become “too direct” and that is effecting the influence of Xavi and Iniesta. The criticism in Catalonia is that Barcelona is not playing to its strengths and are moving too far away from what Barcelona “should be”. The final verdict amongst fans is that the way Barcelona is performing now will be fine for La Liga, but in the bigger games (Champions League), Martino’s style will be exposed.

While Barcelona fans are unhappy with ‘how’ their club has been winning, Atletico Madrid and their supporters are riding on a high following their recent successes. The club and its fans feel as though they are in the fight together; and this ‘unity’ is something which has been the brainchild of Atletico’s manager, Diego Simeone.

When Simeone took over Atletico two years ago, ten of the current eleven starters were already at the club. The Argentine has transformed what was a mid-table club into one that rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid with the force of his personality, his understanding of the club and his training methods.

Every day, Los Colchoneros train for an intense 45 minutes with Simeone overseeing the whole process; and they train the same way they play, they put everything on the pitch. Atletico’s style of play isn’t ‘beautiful’, but they are tactically sound and unquestionably passionate.

Simeone gave an insight into his footballing philosophy during a recent press conference: “Match by match is the life of any person in the street. In reality, it’s the day to day and we see ourselves [Atletico Madrid] reflected by many people in society, who have to fight and struggle to stay afloat. We have to stay afloat. We can’t isolate ourselves from that, because as we do, we’re still left with few alternatives. We know our virtues and defects and we are bound to follow this line.”

When you watch the Atleti play for the very first time, you will see everything Simeone speaks of reflected in the way his players compete on every possession. They play with a passion that teeters on mindless at times; a reckless abandon.

That’s why a number of Atletico’s players were banned against Malaga this past weekend; Raul Garcia and Gabi were unavailable due to an accumulation of bookings. While a handful of other players were dangerously close to being suspended in the match leading up to the showdown with Barcelona.

Koke, Arda Turan, Juanfran and Felipe Luis were all one yellow card away from missing the first place encounter. Defender Juanfran was eventually booked against Malaga, so the Atleti will be without one of their most experienced, in-form players against Barcelona next weekend.

This aggression has been on display for the past few years while Atletico amassed a trophy haul that would be the envy of many European clubs. Over the past four seasons Atletico Madrid has won two Europa League titles, two UEFA Super Cups, and a Copa del Rey title.

Last season’s Copa del Rey title victory over rivals Real Madrid has been the catalyst for Los Colchoneros’ recent league campaign. During that match, Real Madrid were battering Atletico in the Santiago Bernabeu shortly after Los Blancos took the early lead on a goal by Cristiano Ronaldo. But the Atleti reversed the fortunes which had plagued them over the previous 26 games against their city rivals. Instead of caving in to the enormity of the occasion, Atletico showed a tremendous fight while turning the match into a fiery event which saw 14 yellow cards and ultimately the dismissal of Ronaldo and then-manager Jose Mourinho.

Diego Costa leveled the match in the 35th minute before Miranda’s 99th minute header gave Atletico the lead for good. After the final whistle sounded, Atletico’s players raced to the north end of the stadium to celebrate the victory with their fans.

The effects of the victory were on display for all to see only a few months later when the Atleti once again faced off against Real Madrid in the Santiago Bernabeu, this time in La Liga. But unlike the Copa del Rey final, this match was never in doubt as Atletico Madrid dominated Carlo Ancelotti’s squad for 90 minutes on their own ground.

That match proved to many that Los Colchoneros had finally made the jump from a good club, to one of the world’s top clubs.

So everything is in place for this La Liga showdown: two clubs on near-maximum points in the Primera Division facing off at the peak of their games.

Barcelona will be close to full strength and buoyed by the arrival of the world’s best player, Lionel Messi. Atletico Madrid will be missing one of their better defenders through suspension, but other than that Diego Simeone will have their full squad to choose from.

The countdown to kickoff begins…


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