If you are not excited by tomorrow night’s Champions League quarter-final second leg between Atlético Madrid and Barça you should probably call the doctor. Two sides with contrasting styles, that have been unable to defeat the other in four previous encounters this season, meet for a fifth time for the prize of a place in the Champions League semi-finals. Atlético have home advantage following last week’s 1-1 draw at Camp Nou and the hosts will be hoping to turn the Calderón into an authentic cauldron for the game.
A win or a high-scoring draw will see Barça reach a record seventh consecutive Champions League semi-final but it’s going to be a tremendous test for Tata Martino and his players. Barça may have the advantage of experience in the competition but this is likely to be balanced by a greater hunger from Diego Simeone’s team. That desire for victory tomorrow is well demonstrated by the message sent by Atlético’s radical supporters’ group El Frente Atlético:
“On Wednesday we face the most important match of the last few years with the possibility of reaching the Champions League semi-finals…..the Frente Atlético want us to meet the challenge. For this we must be the twelfth man, we must convert El Calderón into an infierno to culminate the great work from our players. We have to be on top of every Barcelona possession, we will whistle and yell with all our strength and give everything just as our players do. If our players pressurize the opponent with their maximum effort, we will do the same.”
The support seems sure to inspire the home team but Barça must not be intimidated. The importance of the game should be enough to ensure the players are properly focused for the task while the recent wins at Real Madrid and Espanyol demonstrated Barça’s ability to withstand the pressure of a hostile crowd.
Atlético are likely to try and rush the Barça defence with a high press for the first fifteen minutes before sitting back in a more defensive formation while looking for quick counter-attacks. Barça should be aware of Atlético’s early rush and it might be advisable for the Barça defence to play it long to avoid losing the ball too close to goal. As the minutes pass Atlético will inevitably drop the high press and we should find a little more time on the ball to play our normal game.
Martino has taken all his available 21 players to Madrid for the game, leaving just the injured Valdés, Piqué, Dos Santos and Cuenca in Barcelona. From all accounts the Barça coach has decided again to sacrifice Pedro and Alexis for a big game, though there could be a change in positions as the team trained yesterday with Messi on the right of the attack, Fabregas as false nine and Neymar on the left, with Andrés Iniesta, who will make his 500th appearance in a Barça shirt tomorrow, moving back to midfield. While tactical adjustments are all very well, surely one of the most important aspects of this is to surprise the opponent. It’s getting a little worrying that the press so often seem to know Martino’s intentions before the game. Hopefully, he has a final surprise up his sleeve. Personally, I’d prefer to see the XI that were playing when Neymar scored last week’s equalizer which would mean leaving Fabregas out, with Messi as false nine and Alexis coming in on the right.
Atlético, of course, are waiting on the fitness of Diego Costa. Arda Turan will definitely miss the game due to a pelvic injury and his place will most likely be taken by Raul Garcia who missed the first leg through suspension. Costa’s chances don’t look too good either. He’s in the squad but didn’t train and Simeone stated today that the striker will only play if he’s at least at 90%, “if he’s fine he’ll play, if he’s more or less okay he’ll be on the bench, and if he’s not okay he won’t play at all.” Simeone also stated that Adrián López will come in if Costa doesn’t make it.
Whichever twenty-two players take to the field for the kick-off it’s going to be an incredibly tense 90 minutes. Barça have yet to take the lead in the four previous encounters this season with Atlético scoring first in the two score draws (Villa in the Supercopa 1st leg and Diego Ribas last week). The key tomorrow may well be to get the first goal, if Barça can get it then we will finally see Atlético forced to take the initiative, and hopefully Messi and Neymar can then take advantage of more space. We are going to have to be at our best for the challenge but I’m confident we can pull it off.
Atlético: Courtois, Aranzubia, Godín, Filipe, Alderweireld, Manquillo, Giménez, Juanfran, Insua, Miranda, Mario Suárez, Tiago, Koke, Raúl García, Cristian Rodríguez, Gabi, Diego Ribas, Sosa, Adrián, Villa, Diego Costa.
Barça: Pinto, Oier, Alves, Montoya, Bartra, Mascherano, Puyol, Adriano, Alba, Song, Busquets, Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Iniesta, Fabregas, Alexis, Pedro, Messi, Neymar, Tello, Afellay.
Atlético: Courtois; Juanfran, Miranda, Godin, Filipe Luis; Raul Garcia, Gabi, Tiago, Koke; Adrian, Villa.
Barça: Pinto; Alves, Bartra, Mascherano, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Messi, Fabregas, Neymar.
Prediction: Atlético 1 Barça 2
Date: Wednesday 9 April 2014. kick-off 8.45 pm local time.