La Liga: Surging Atletico Madrid visit stumbling Barcelona for crucial clash that could define title race
La Liga title race is well and truly back on and a poor February for Barcelona has ensured that the match with Atletico will be an evenly-fought contest.
At the beginning of February, Barcelona were galloping away with the La Liga title, leading their nearest challengers Atletico Madrid by 11 points. They were a whopping 17 points ahead of their bitter rivals, Real Madrid. Fast forward to the beginning of March and things have changed a lot. Though the Catalan giants still retain a 12-point lead over Real with a game in hand, they are now only five points ahead of second-placed Atletico.
A win for Los Rojiblancos in their clash against the Blaugrana on Sunday at the Camp Nou would reduce the gap to just two points. The title race is well and truly back on and a poor February for Ernesto Valverde's team has ensured that the match with Diego Simeone's troops will be an evenly-fought contest. The match also brings together two teams that have lost only one game combined in the league so far — Espanyol are the only team to defeat the team from Madrid, while Barcelona have remained unbeaten.
Atletico relied on their defensive strength to get them through the initial five months of the season, as their summer additions of striker Diego Costa and winger Vitolo couldn't be a part of the team till January due to the transfer ban imposed on the club. Since the turn of the year, Simeone's men have scored 20 goals in nine league matches, conceding only three. Their season total for goals in La Liga is only 45. That gives us a huge indication about the mindset of the team currently and their flourishing attacking play.
The return of Costa has helped them go on a run of eight wins and one draw in their last nine La Liga matches. The striker has scored three goals and assisted two in the seven matches he has played, forming a dangerous partnership with Antoine Griezmann. With 10 goals and four assists in the league in 2018, the Frenchman is on fire, including seven goals in his last two games. The emergence of Thomas Partey in midfield has provided great thrust and solidity to the team, allowing the likes of Koke and Saul Niguez to shoulder the playmaking burden.
A dodgy February for Barcelona saw them drop four points in draws with Espanyol and Getafe, as well as a draw with Chelsea in the Champions League. Despite getting themselves back on track with a 6-1 win over Girona, they went on to drop another two points in their next encounter against Las Palmas. Their results in the last five matches in the league have seen them draw three encounters and win two, causing the title race to remain alive.
Valverde will be keen on silencing their critics and getting a comprehensive win to quell all talks of a collapse. Goals have been a little tough to come by for the Catalans, despite having scored 10 goals in five league matches, as six of them came in one match. The team have been over-dependent on talisman Lionel Messi for attacking inspiration, and have often looked to rely on their new-found defensive resilience this season to help them secure results. A statement win at the Camp Nou against the title challengers would definitely send a strong message to doubters everywhere.
Both teams adopt slightly different versions of the 4-4-2, with Atletico playing Partey and Saul in the centre of midfield, allowing Koke to play from the left and offering defensive cover, while Angel Correa does the same from the right. The presence of Griezmann and Costa up top offers the team from Madrid a dual threat, as both of them can play well both on the ground and in the air. Samuel Umtiti and Gerard Pique will have to work hard to win their duels with the Atletico duo if they wish to continue unopposed on their way to the La Liga title.
Barcelona have also played a 4-4-2 in most of their matches this season, opting for solidity in midfield rather than flamboyance, giving Messi the reins of the team going forward. With Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets taking their places in the centre, Paulinho provides the team with size and physicality, especially in the bigger matches, offering them another dimension. With new boy Philippe Coutinho finally looking like he has settled down, Valverde might opt for the Brazilian instead of Paulinho to give them more of a threat on the ball.
The combination play between Messi and Jordi Alba has been key to the Catalan club's play going forward and will be crucial against Atletico as well. Luis Suarez has picked up his form after struggling earlier in the season and has been on top of his game of late, dovetailing beautifully with Messi. Suarez has scored 20 goals and provided six assists to go with the Argentine's 23 goals and 12 assists, accounting for two-thirds of the club's goals in the league. Defensively, Diego Godin and Luis Gimenez will be crucial if the away side are to keep Barcelona quiet.
Another talking point ahead of the clash is the fact that Barcelona have admitted to speaking to Griezmann's representatives about a potential move in the summer, with the player's €100 million buyout clause raising the Catalan side's hopes of signing him. Despite having decided to stay at the club to support them during their transfer ban, the Frenchman was initially unsettled, but has been professional throughout and is now back to his best. If Atletico do agree to sell him, they would be hoping that he takes them to their second league title in five years before he makes the move.
It was on a bright summer afternoon in the summer of 2014 that Simeone took his men to the Camp Nou to take on Barcelona knowing that avoiding a loss would mean that his team would be crowned La Liga champions. Los Colcheneros did that with great precision, limiting the Catalans' goal attempts, before getting the equaliser through Godin and hanging on to it.
Having kept 17 clean sheets in the league this season, the Argentine knows that his team have what it takes to defeat Valverde's men. The reverse fixture this season saw both teams play out a 1-1 draw, with Suarez scoring late to help break Atletico's resistance.
Though it might be premature to call this a title-deciding clash, what with 11 rounds of matches left after this and with both teams still to face Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid will take to the pitch at the Camp Nou confident in their own abilities, as they look to invoke the spirit with which they played in this very stadium four years ago to clinch their first league title in 18 years.
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