Barça versus Atlético. A game to really get excited about. Traditionally, of course, the biggest game of the season is against the evil empire Real Madrid, but if Barça-Madrid has earned the name of el clásico then Barça-Atléti should really be called el espectáculo for all the amazing games between the sides over the last 20 years.
Some of those games have remained in the memory of those fortunate enough to witness them. There was the incredible 5-3 victory in March 1994 with Romario and Stoichkov in tremendous form in a game that was so mad it even had a (march) hare run on the pitch to get involved. Then in 1997 there was the amazing comeback from a 0-3 deficit at half time to win 5-4 in the Copa del Rey with a hat-trick from the original Ronaldo.
In recent years we have also seen some spectacular performances. In the last four seasons under Pep Guardiola Barça beat Atlético 6-1, 5-2, 3-0 and 5-0 in league meetings at Camp Nou – an impressive 19 goals from Barça in those four games with nine of them coming from Leo Messi including hat-tricks in the last two. However, Guardiola didn’t always have it easy against Los Colchoneros, losing twice at the Vicente Calderon including an unbelievable 4-3 defeat in the spring of 2009.
Tomorrow’s game takes on an even bigger importance than usual given that Barça are top of La Liga on 43 points after 15 matches with Atlético second on 37, five points above third placed Madrid. The improvent in Atlético’s fortunes is mainly due to the excellent work of their Argentinian coach Diego Simeone. As a player Simeone was a key part of the Atlético team that last won La Liga back in 1996 and his success as a player could be summed up by one word – ‘character’. He might be remembered by his detractors as a dirty so-and-so who used every trick in the book to gain an advantage, but he was incredibly important to his team as he knew how to boss the midfield better than almost anyone. His niggly style will of course be remembered by David Beckham and England fans at the 1998 World Cup, and for those who have never seen it here’s Romario’s punch as a response to a kick from Simeone during a Sevilla-Barça in January 1994.
Simeone should have all his key players for tomorrow’s clash except for the doubts over Adrian Lopez and Cristian Rodriguez. Top scorer Radamel Falcao seems to have recovered from a slight ankle injury and looks sure to start. Tito Vilanova has the main doubt of who to substitute the injured Cesc Fabregas with the possibility of bringing in Thiago or moving Iniesta back to midfield and playing either Villa, Alexis or Tello up front with Pedro and Messi. Adriano seems likely to continue at right back in preference to Alves and Montoya, while Piqué and Puyol will probably be the centre-back pairing with Mascherano returning to the bench.
The mood at Camp Nou is very good at the moment though there are rumours about the situations of Dani Alves and David Villa. There is always likely to be a problem in such talented squads when all the stars cannot all play at once. One of Guardiola’s strengths as a coach was his ability to keep the group happy, though of course there were cases (Eto’o, Ibrahimovic, Toure Yaya) when things didn’t end so well. This may be another test for Vilanova will may show his abilities or not to man-manage. On the other hand there are agreements or the beginnings of agreements for new contracts for Tello (2016), Xavi (2016 and Messi (2018). Tello’s contract seems to be totally agreed with the player due to sign on Monday, finally making him a first-team player in all respects
The game will obviously be billed by some as a duel between Messi and Falcao. Not surprising given that both players have more than a goal a game in La Liga this season. Falcao’s five goals last week in the 6-0 win over Deportivo took the striker’s total to 16 though nobody can stay with Messi at the moment who leads the pichichi race with an astonishing 23 in the 15 league games played. Both players are in excellent form but this is always easier playing in well-prepared teams. A close look at Atlético’s away form suggests they are not quite so powerful on their travels. Their most impressive away win was at Betis (2-4) but they have lost at Valencia (2-0) and Madrid (2-0) while dropping points at Levante (1-1). Tomorrow they will be very tough opponents but I feel that Barça will get the better of things and it will be Messi once again grabbing the headlines.
Possible starting line-ups:
Barça: Valdés; Adriano, Piqué, Puyol, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Thiago; Pedro, Messi, Iniesta.
Atlético: Courtois; Juanfran, Miranda, Godin, Filipe Luis; Mario Suarez, Gabi; Koke, Diego Costa, Arda Turan; Falcao.
Prediction: Barça 4 Atlético 2
Date: Sunday 16 December 2012. Kick off: 9 pm (local time)