The 2013/14 Liga reaches its climax tomorrow evening when Barça take on Atlético Madrid in a 90-minute title-decider at Camp Nou (Saturday 6 pm). A win for Barça will take us above Atlético on head-to-head goal difference and see us claim our fifth league title in the last six seasons. A draw or a win for Atlético will earn Los Colchoneros their first league since 1996 and leave us licking our wounds. The tension is likely to be unbearable.
This is only third time in the history of La Liga that the top two teams have played for the title in the final game of the season, and neither of the two precedents bodes well for tomorrow. At the end of the 1945/46 season Barça met Sevilla at Les Corts needing a win to be champions, but after Araujo gave Sevilla an early lead Barça could only manage an equalizer with half an hour remaining and Sevilla held on to take the title. Then in 1950/51 it was Sevilla who needed a victory at home to Atlético but after another 1-1 draw Atlético lifted the trophy.
The fact that Barça have failed to beat Atlético in five previous meetings this season is another sign of the difficulty of tomorrow’s challenge. However, a look at the last five league meetings at Camp Nou offers more hope: Barça won easily in each of Pep Guardiola’s four seasons in charge (6-1, 5-2, 3-0 and 5-0) and last season under Tito Vilanova goals from Adriano, Busquets and Messi (2) earned Barça a 4-1 victory.
Tata Martino has Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba and Neymar fit again for tomorrow’s game and the Argentinian coach has again included every first team player in his squad list except Victor Valdés who is continuing with his recovery in Germany. Carles Puyol has ruled himself out for the game which is a shame not just because it means we will never see him play again but also because he would have made an excellent last-five-minutes substitute as centre-forward if we needed a plan B to crack the Atlético defence. Piqué seems the most likely to return to the starting XI, Alba chances appear to be about 50/50 while Neymar will probably start on the bench. Martino’s other big decision is whether to play an extra midfielder in Fabregas, as tried unsuccessfully in the 1-1 draw in the Champions League, or to start with two wide attackers, probably Pedro and Alexis, to support Messi up front. The most likely Barça line-up is probably Pinto, Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Adriano, Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, Alexis, Messi and Pedro.
Atlético coach Diego Simeone has announced that striker Diego Costa is fit which means our opponents will be at full strength. Simeone is said to be planning to start with David Villa which would probably cost Raul Garcia his place. If Villa starts it is a fair bet to expect him to play as a lone striker with Costa used on the right, the tactic of playing long high balls to the right wing to take advantage of the lack of height of either Alba or Adriano was seen often in the Champions League and Barça will need to be wary of covering the space behind. Barring surprises Atlético will start with Courtois, Juanfran, Miranda, Godin, Filipe Luis, Diego Costa, Gabi, Tiago, Koke, Arda Turan and Villa.
The result may well depend on which team bears the pressure best. Barça have home advantage and the fans can undoubtedly make a difference in our favour, however, this may just add to the sense of responsibility with fear of failure leading to anxiety. Atlético’s success this season has often been attributed to their strength of character but having taken just one point from their last two games the pressure of throwing it all away at the last gasp is likely to weigh heavily on their shoulders.
In ninety minutes all will be decided. Barça may be coming to the end of a cycle with Puyol and Valdés leaving and rumours of other possible departures. The memory of these players will not be undervalued if Barça fail to win tomorrow but another league title would be a fitting finale to their blaugrana careers and complete this team’s cycle on a positive note. A win would also give Tata Martino a deserved trophy to end a difficult season at the club, but most of all a victory would be a homage to the memory of Tito Vilanova.
Barça announced today that agreement has finally been made for Leo Messi’s new contract. There is no change to the length of the contract which runs until 2018 though Messi will receive a pay increase. Let’s hope he starts repaying the club’s investment with a goal or two tomorrow.
Barça: Pinto; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Adriano; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Alexis, Messi, Pedro.
Atlético: Courtois; Juanfran, Miranda, Godin, Filipe Luis; Diego Costa, Gabi, Tiago, Koke, Arda Turan; Villa.
Prediction: Barça 2 Atlético 1
Date: Saturday 17 May 2014. Kick-off 6 pm local time.