In recent La Liga seasons, matches between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona at the Vicente Calderon have felt like decisive occasions.
Earlier in the week, the upcoming meeting didn’t feel quite so crucial. But on the cusp of the contest, with Real Madrid losing to Valencia on Wednesday, it’s a match that could breathe life back into Spanish football’s top flight.
First and foremost, Barcelona need a big performance. Luis Enrique is a manager under severe pressure as things stand, with his team struggling to a 2-1 win over lowly Leganes last weekend after they were hammered out of sight by PSG. They’ve plunged into a lull as a result and need to be enlivened.
As for Atletico Madrid, they must ensure they cling on to fourth place, with Real Sociedad and Villarreal still on their tail. Manager Diego Simeone will at least be pleased to see his side improving as of late; their 4-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday was their best performance of the campaign.
That will make them slight favorites in the eyes of most come kick-off on Sunday. This is potentially the last time the Caldoron will host Barcelona too, with Atleti set to move into a new home in 2017-18.
It means the home crowd will be even more hostile than usual when the illustrious visitors come to town. They’ll also be aware that three points here pushes them to within three points of Barcelona and drags the Blaugrana back into that battle for fourth spot.
Writing off Enrique’s side would be foolish, though, as players like Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar will naturally raise their game on this raucous stage. A win here would send a message to their bitter rivals that the title isn’t done quite yet.
Date: Sunday, February 26, 2017
Time: 10:15 a.m. (ET)
US TV: Live on beIN SPORTS en Español
US streaming: Streamed live via fuboTV (free 7-day trial)
With Jan Oblak, Juanfran and Diego Godin all missing in recent weeks, the indomitable defensive structure Atletico’s recent success has been built on has been dislodged. It’s prompted a change in emphasis from Simeone.
That’s been evident in their last three matches in all competitions, with 11 goals scored. Antoine Griezmann, Kevin Gameiro and Fernando Torres were all on the scoresheet in Leverkusen, with the former duo running amok against the German outfit.
Only two of that trio will start against the Blaugrana on Sunday, although whichever setup Simeone decides to go with should trouble Barcelona. Against PSG and Leganes, direct attacking play has exposed the leggy midfield and unsure defence; Griezmann and Gameiro excel in this area of the game.
What Simeone has to do in this contest is find the right balance in midfield. Saul Niguez, who has been in and out of the team this term, made his case to start with a super display against Bayer in midweek, while Yannick Carrasco is also beginning to warm up again after some inconsistency. Expect an offensive-looking four strung across the pitch.
The cautious approach didn’t work in the last meeting at the Calderon either, with Atletico sitting deep in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final and being punished twice early on by Messi and Suarez. At the Camp Nou they were on the front foot and eventually unlucky to only draw 1-1.
PSG outlined the perfect blueprint for getting the better of this Barcelona side in the Champions League. If teams are brave, incisive and aggressive, goals can be scored in quick succession. Based on their displays as of late, Atletico can adopt a similar game plan.
During the win over Leganes in La Liga, sections of the Camp Nou chanted in support of Enrique, while others jeered to drown those cheers out. It summed up the mood at Barcelona at the moment.
The team has looked lost in the last two matches. Against PSG they were pummeled, lacking the intensity needed to compete at the very highest level, not to mention a dearth of defensive discipline. Those problems reared their head against Leganes again, although eventually a late penalty from Messi spared their blushes.
Even so, the reaction to that performance in Catalonia has been one of shock. Granted, Enrique freshened his team up, but the lack of composure, quality and cohesion in the team’s play was striking against a side who are now without a win in 11 games.
Yet for all the doom and gloom surrounding Barcelona, in La Liga they haven’t lost in their last 16 matches and following Real Madrid’s shock loss at Valencia on Wednesday, the capital club lead by one point at the top of the table having played a game less. The title is suddenly up for grabs again.
With that in mind, this feels like a huge match for the Blaugrana. Should they lose, questions will emerge about the manager and the players once again. But should they win and move top of the table ahead of Madrid’s trip to Villarreal later in the day, suddenly things wouldn’t look quite so bleak.
They will need to improve substantially to take three points at an unforgiving venue. After all, there are few more ominous opponents to come up against than Atletico when they sense blood.
Key Battle – Antoine Griezmann and Kevin Gameiro vs. Samuel Umtiti and Gerard Pique
When Atletico spent big in the summer to land Gameiro from Sevilla, the prospect of him linking up with Griezmann was much discussed. But it’s only recently the pair have caught fire as a partnership.
The match in Leverkusen showcased them each at their best. Gameiro was the man furthest forward in attack and his movement pulled the opposition centre-backs all over the field. That, in turn, facilitated a lot of space for Griezmann, who made a string of surging runs into the box.
It’s the kind of play that’s caused Barcelona’s defenders major headaches lately. Umtiti, while looking calm in possession, can switch off in tracking runners, while the usually immaculate Pique hasn’t been quite so assured without Javier Mascherano next to him.
The success enjoyed by the likes of Edinson Cavani and Julian Draxler for PSG won’t have escaped the Atletico front two. Barcelona’s centre-backs and midfield must be more vigilant in their duties if they’re to avoid another difficult evening in defense.
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