We all know that the term clásico is used to refer to the games between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. And quite rightly so given they are the two biggest clubs in the world. However, for those who have followed Spanish football for the last 20 years the term could quite easily be applied to the games between Barça and Atlético Madrid such has been the brilliance of some of the games between the clubs. The real thrillers came in the 1990s: the great Romario Da Souza scored a first half hat-trick to give Barça a 0-3 lead at the Calderon only for Atléti to win 4-3 in the end, Milinko Pantic scored four at Camp Nou but lost 5-4 as Barça came back from 0-3 and 2-4, and nobody who saw the 5-3 thriller in 1994 will forget the drama of disallowed goals, missed penalties and red cards in that amazing contest.
The games in recent years continue to offer high entertainment value. Since Pep Guardiola took over as Barça’s coach the teams have met seven times in La Liga and those games have produced 35 goals. Barça have won five of those seven matches – the four games at Camp Nou and the 1-2 win in our last visit to the Vicente Calderon in September 2010 – while Atlético won the other two. What is slightly worrying is that both those defeats were played at more or less the same time of the season. On March 1st 2009 we lost an unbelievable game 4-3 after leading 0-2 and 2-3 which at the time saw our lead at the top of the table cut to four points when the lead had been 12 points only three weeks before (a fact worth remembering for those who think 10 points can’t be made up in three months). The following season we suffered our only league defeat of the entire season on February 14 going down 2-1, so we should be warned about how dangerous this game can be.
This season Atléti got off to a pretty irregular start but they are unbeaten so far in 2012 and have moved up to 6th place in table on 32 points. The improvement seems largely due to the signing of Diego “Cholo” Simeone as their new coach at the start of the year. As a player the Argentinian led Atlético to their last Liga in 1996 and he obviously commands a lot of respect at the club. The obvious threat for Barça’s defence is Radamel Falcao Garcia Zarate, better known as simply Falcao, who has scored 14 goals this season, though it seems Atleti will be without the Brazilian star Diego Ribas, and there is also a doubt over Turkish midfielder Arda Turan.
Barça, meanwhile, will be more or less at full strength apart from the long-term injured Afellay, Villa and Fontás. Keita is back and the rest of the players have had a few extra days this week to recharge the batteries. The game may have its dangers, we saw against Villarreal how much a team can improve under a new coach, but the plus side is we usually notice the benefit of being able to prepare a game for an entire week, while Atlético were playing on Thursday night in the Europa League though reports say they didn’t need to exert themselves too much to beat Lazio 1-0 and Falcao, Tiago Mendes and Filipe were all rested. We can also be confident that Leo Messi is back to his best after his four goals last Sunday against Valencia. Messi has a better record against Atlético than any other club, scoring 17 times in 13 games against the colchoneros. One of Messi’s best ever games was at the Calderon in the Copa del Rey back in 2009 when he scored all three in a 1-3 victory. My prediction is a repeat of that scoreline.
Possible Barça starting XI: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Abidal; Busquets, Xavi, Cesc; Alexis, Messi, Iniesta.
Prediction: Atlético Madrid 1 FC Barcelona 3
Kick Off: Sunday 26th February 9.30pm (local time)