Barça’s 5-0 victory over Elche on Thursday night and the announcement of presidential elections may have served briefly to calm the storm at Camp Nou, but Luis Enrique’s position continues to be in doubt as Atlético Madrid come to town for the 18th round of the 2014/15 Liga (Sunday 9 pm). Xavi Hernandez with a calf injury is a serious doubt for the game while Jeremy Mathieu is hoping to receive medical clearance in time to play.
Barça president Josep Maria Bartomeu last night denied that Leo Messi had asked for Luis Enrique’s head in reply to a story in the local media. According to TV3 Bartomeu spoke to Messi after the Elche game and the player is supposed to have informed the president that he is not happy with the coach. The story has also been denied by sources close to Messi though it seems clear that the relationship between player and coach is not great.
We need to be very careful about believing what we read these days as there will no doubt be interests behind many stories. There have always been lies from the anti-Barça press in Madrid with the intention of destabilizing the club, but now with elections on the horizon it is possible that certain Barcelona-based journalists, who may have an interest in supporting different candidates, also reinvent the truth in order to discredit Bartomeu.
It’s a rocky situation and it seems likely we will continue to hear rumours of Messi leaving the club. Many fans are defiantly saying that this will never happen, and the fair-play transfer regulations seem likely to make it very difficult. It may all be a power game and I feel sure that deep down Messi wants to stay, however, his greatest desire is to carry on winning trophies and if Barça fail to win anything again this season and Messi doesn’t believe in the project for 2015/16 then there is a real possibility he will look elsewhere for success.
Tomorrow’s game provides another page to the story. Luis Enrique is only supported by 29% of supporters according to Sport and failure to win tomorrow would further weaken his position. Messi will do his talking on the pitch and we must hope he can improve on last season’s performances against Atlético. The Argentinian has scored a total of 20 goals in games against Los Colchoneros but he failed to find the net in six meetings last season against Diego Simeone’s men.
Curiously, despite his supposed discontent Messi has been showing signs of his brilliant best. One wonders, however, how long he will put up with playing on the right. When Luis Suarez first appeared in the team it seemed it would be the Uruguayan who who have to adapt to the wing but recently Luis Enrique has preferred to use him in a central position with Messi returning to the role he had in his early years under Frank Rijkaard.
Against Atlético I’d like to see Messi restored to his false nine role with Pedro and Neymar attacking from the flanks. If Mathieu isn’t fully fit then Mascherano will probably return to defence alongside Piqué meaning a probable midfield of Rakitic, Busquets and Iniesta.
We know Simeone’s Atlético well, they will be physically very strong and especially dangerous at set-pieces. Simeone has made some important changes since last season with Moya replacing Courtois in goal and Siqueira coming in for Filipe Luis at left back. Diego Costa and David Villa have left with the attack now formed by Mandzukic and Griezmann. Recent signings Fernando Torres and Cani seem more likely to start on the bench but there could be a surprise in defence with 19-year-old Uruguayan José Maria Giménez maintaining his place after scoring in Atlético’s 2-0 win over Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday which would mean Miranda starting on the bench.
Barça: Bravo; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Neymar.
Atlético: Moya; Juanfran, Giménez, Godin, Siqueira; Arda, Gabi, Tiago, Koke; Mandzukic, Greizmann.
Prediction: Barça 1 Atlético Madrid 0
Date: Sunday 11 January 2015. Kick-off 9 pm local time.