Barcelona v Atletico Madrid Preview
Camp Nou, Barcelona
by Jerrad Peters (@jerradpeters)
MATCH IN A SENTENCE: La Liga’s two top sides and two top goalscorers will collide at Camp Nou on Sunday when Primera Division leaders Barcelona host Atletico Madrid, who are just six points back, in Europe’s most tantalising fixture of the weekend.
BREAKDOWN: That a Madrid side is challenging Barcelona for the title is hardly surprising, but that it’s Atletico Madrid and not Real Madrid who have a chance to narrow the gap on the league leaders to three points on Sunday is nothing less than astounding.
While Real Madrid stuttered out of the gates to start the season local rivals Atletico blazed a trail that has taken them as near the top of the table as they’ve been in years, and with striker Radamel Falco popping in the goals with incredible regularity while the defense stymies opponent after opponent, there’s reason to think Los Rojiblancos could just give Barcelona a bit of a push over the second half of the schedule.
Falcao is quite obviously the major talking point when Atletico is the subject of discussion these days. The 26-year-old has scored 16 goals in 14 La Liga matches so far this season and has established himself as the continent’s most sought-after striker. It’s unlikely he’ll be at Atletico next season, so he has even more impetus to enjoy some success at the club this term.
On the other side of the ball is none other than the world’s best player, the Argentine virtuoso who has bagged a mind-boggling 88 goals in the 2012 calendar year. Lionel Messi is La Liga’s top scorer with 23 goals already in 2012-13, and if he keeps scoring at his current clip and manages to play 55 games he’ll at least equal the 73 goals he scored in all competitions last season.
“We’ve been debating how to stop Messi for 10 years,” Atletico midfielder Gabi told reporters on Friday. “It’s difficult because he’s the most talented player in the world. With the ball at his feet he’s almost unstoppable.”
When asked about how his side would deal with the Messi threat, Gabi remarked, “We have to play as a team and keep it tight so that he can’t find the space he needs to go past people.”
Tito Vilanova, meanwhile, stated his belief that Atletico Madrid were much more than just Falcao when he addressed reporters at his Friday press conference.
“[Atletico] is full of great players,” said the Barcelona manager. “I haven’t been able to watch all their matches, but the table doesn’t lie. We’ve made a better start, and they are six points back. They would be top in another league or in any other season.”
ESSENTIALS: Primera Division assist leader Cesc Fabregas is suffering from a thigh injury and will play no part for Barcelona in Sunday’s match. The Catalans will also be without right-back Dani Alves.
Atletico Madrid will be without midfielder Cristian Rodriguez, but Adrian may have overcome his thigh strain just in time to feature for Diego Simeone’s side. The Atletico manager will welcome defender Miranda back into the lineup following a one-match ban.
KEY BATTLE: Barcelona will play the way Barcelona always plays, and Gabi and Mario Suarez will sit right in front of the Atletico back four in an attempt to soak up pressure and provide a more complicated maze for the likes of Messi and Andres Iniesta to weave their way through. Going the other way, Sergio Busquets will have to keep a close eye on Turkish playmaker Arda Turan, who will be looking to spring Falcao in the attacking third.
FORMATIONS: Vilanova will deploy his usual 4-3-3 formation with Pedro, Messi and David Villa across the top. Simeone will counter with a 4-2-3-1 fronted by Falcao and supported by Koke, Arda Turan and Diego Costa.
BETLINE: Barcelona 2/7; Draw 5/1; Atletico Madrid 15/2. Atletico Madrid last beat Barcelona in the capital in February 2010. Since then they have lost four matches on the bounce by a combined score of 12-2.