A thrilling battle for the 2013/14 Liga is put to the side tomorrow evening when Barça receive Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid at Camp Nou in the Champions League quarter-final first leg. Tata Martino has named a 22-man squad for the game that includes Alex Song who missed the 0-1 win at Espanyol on Saturday with a bruised calf and Pedro Rodriguez who has recovered from a gastroenteritis. Carles Puyol is also on the list although Barça captain has yet to receive medical clearance.
When Atlético lost at Almeria and then at Osasuna in February there are many who might have felt that Los Colchoneros were about to crumble in their challenge for La Liga. However, Simeone’s men have demonstrated their mental fortitude and since their 2-2 draw with Real Madrid at the start of March they have won their last six games, scoring twelve and conceding only two, to return to the top of the league table while continuing their Champions League dream. Atlético now stand in the way of a record seventh consecutive Champions League semi-final for Barça and Simeone has all his first-team squad available except for the suspended Raul Garcia and the injured Javi Manquillo.
The two sides have already faced each other in three tightly fought draws this season. The days of the 4-3 thrillers between the teams seem to have passed with only David Villa and Neymar Jr finding the net in the first meeting in the Supercopa back in August. Tomorrow’s game could very well turn out to be another close encounter though Martino will be hoping that the excellent form of Leo Messi and Andrés Iniesta, combinined with a resurgent Neymar, will make the difference this time.
It is expected that, with the exception of Pinto replacing the injured Valdés in goal, Martino will start with the same team that performed so spectacularly to beat Real Madrid 3-4 at the Bernabéu. This would mean Iniesta returning on the left of the attack and Neymar on the right with Pedro and Alexis on the bench. However, there is a fair case to leave out Fabregas who has not been at his best in recent games, which would mean Iniesta back in midfield, Neymar on the left and either Pedro or Alexis coming in on the right.
Playing a team from the same national league in Europe generally means that home advantage counts for less as both sets of players are familiar with visiting each other’s stadiums. The strengths and weaknesses of each team are well known and the tie will surely be intense. A place in the semi-finals is a big enough prize in itself, but with the two teams meeting in a possible league-title decider on the last day of the season, there is the added ingredient of trying to gain a psychological advantage in the title race. The previous meetings this season suggest this won’t be a goal-fest. However, it will be fast, it will be furious and it will be fiery. Both teams will be tested to the extreme. It should be a cracker.
Barça: Pinto, Oier, Alves, Montoya, Bartra, Piqué, Mascherano, Puyol, Adriano, Alba, Song, Busquets, Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Fabregas, Iniesta, Alexis, Pedro, Messi, Neymar, Tello, Afellay.
Atlético: Courtois, Aranzubia, Juanfran, Miranda, Godín, Alderweireld, Giménez, Filipe Luis, Insua, Gabi, Mario Suarez, Tiago, Arda Turan, Diego, Koke, Cebolla, Sosa, Diego Costa, David Villa, Adrián.
Barça: Pinto; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Neymar, Messi, Iniesta.
Atlético: Courtois; Juanfran, Miranda, Godin, Filipe Luis; Arda Turan, Gabi, Mario Suárez, Koke; Diego Costa, Villa.
Prediction: Barça 2 Atlético 1
Date: Tuesday 1 April 2014. Kick-off 8.45 pm local time