Bishal Dhakal for La Revista
Barcelona face biggest test against Cholo Simeone’s Atletico Madrid in their clumsy title race against league leaders Real Madrid. After the Catalans faced a disappointing 2-2 draw against Celta de Vigo at Balaidos, Real Madrid grabbed a narrow win against the relegation treating side Espaynol and managed to extend the lead up to two points. It’s a must-win match for the Catalan giants – a loss against Atletico could be fatal and technically hand the title to Real Madrid.
Things are not easy at the Capital of Catalonia with too much fuss inside the club, followed by a controversial Arthur move and rumors spreading about clashes at the dressing room. There are some doubts within the club regarding the appointment of Bossman Setien. There is a lot to answer with the remaining fixtures of La Liga.
Simeone’s side is currently sitting in the third position, with 58 points on hand. They managed to settle themselves into the top four after the pandemic break. They have dropped only one point in five matches with four wins and a draw after the break. Atletico head into the match against Barcelona on a four-game winning streak, conceding just two goals and scoring nine goals. On the other hand, Barcelona emerged victorious in the games against Mallorca and Leganes but dropped crucial points against Sevilla and Celta, giving Real Madrid driving seat on the title race. This season Cholo’s side is not at their best with just 15W-13D-4L in 32 games, but winning streaks after the pandemic break is worrying sign for Barcelona.
Barcelona’s defensive issues? Can they contain Cholo Simeone’s quick counter-attack?
The defense is an underlying issue at the Football club Barcelona. As fullbacks move high up to the pitch, center-backs need to defend the big spaces and become venerable due to lack of cover from the midfield. Barcelona’s center-backs face many problems in transition because of the slow pace of their CB duo Pique and Lenglet. Umtiti has been disappointing after his knee injury, his lack of positional awareness cost Barcelona game against Celta. He was caught out of position so often that Pique needed to defend large space against numerically superior opponent attackers. Ageing squad might be one of the biggest reasons behind the clumsy Barcelona defense. This season defending the flanks has been the biggest defensive issue of Barcelona. Even after Setien’s appointment, defensive shortcoming has been a major headache for Barcelona.
Barcelona have conceded a total of 33 goals this season. Setien’s side has conceded ten in twelve appearances. On the other hand Atletico Madrid has scored 43 goals this season (i.e. 1.35 goals per game) out of which ten goals after the pandemic break.
Former Real Madrid man Lorente is on an excellent run of form. It seems like the man has incarnated after the match against Liverpool. He has been the attacking focal point of the Cholo’s team. Koke is set to miss the game against the Blaugrana as he picked up his fifth yellow card against Alaves on a narrow 2-1 victory. The forward Atletico duo can cause problems to the vulnerable Barcelona side as Cholo’s team is more likely to defend deep and punish the opponent on the counter. They have the tools to break Barcelona’s high line defense and cause problems via flanks as their midfielders more often drift wide to support the fullbacks and do not hesitate threatening passes to the runners behind the defense.Technical midfielders with the likes of Partey, Saul, and Llorente can press and dispossess the opponents at higher up the pitch and lay off threatening passes to attackers. Youngster Joao Felix might start behind the target man Costa. Felix has scored six goals this season in La Liga, and Alvaro Morata has been top scorer with just nine goals. Barcelona is struggling to control the final minutes of the game against the fresh legs. It might be a worrying sign for Barcelona as Simeone got likes of Correa, Carrasco, Lemar, and Morata, who can add tension to Barcelona defense at the final minutes of the game.
Can Barcelona break Cholo’s stubborn defense?
Atletico are confident in their ability to defend deep constantly for a long period of spell. They are very comfortable sitting at their own half defending the spaces and making life harder for opponent attackers. Atletico Madrid have conceded just 23 goals (0.72 goals per game) this season in La Liga, least goal conceding team behind league leaders Real Madrid. They are in a great run of form with just two goals conceded in 5 games after the break. Atletico’s main formation is 4-4-2 with double 6. They alter it on occasion to suit the opposition, and they use a 4-5-1 flat to stop attacking-minded sides. Cholo Simeone’s team is known for organized pressing. Their aggressive pressing can cause Barcelona trouble to buildup from the back. It’s hard to split the compact defense of Atletico throw central of the pitch as Saul and Partey guard the back four with energy and technique. With the hard work, constant movements, and game intelligence that Simeone demands and install in his players, it becomes extremely tough to break Atletico down. They have got a very aggressive center-back. Return of Jose Giminez has been a booster for Atletico. He is phenomenal in air, loves to tackle, and has established himself as one of the elite CB in recent times. Savic set to miss due to suspension. Slovenian International Jan Oblak has been the dominant goalkeeper for a long time. He has been vital for Atletico’s defense with his great reflexes, ability to spread himself and dominance inside the penalty area on high balls, and a great reach for shots high or into the corners. Felipe has been one of the best fullbacks in Liga this season, his work rate, defending and breaking the plays is vital for Simeone’s team. On their last seven La Liga battles, Barcelona managed to score 10 goals conceding six goals (four wins, a loss and two draws for Barcelona).
Barcelona need to be sharper and extremely efficient with their passing to seal the victory against Cholo’s stubborn defensive side. They need to become more vertical and should stretch the Atletico defense, trying to unsettle their shape. Natural wingers like Fati might be vital to this game rather than inside forwards like Griezzy/Braithwaite. Busquets likely to return after suspension. He is vital to control the game and overcome the Atletico’s pressing to build from the back. Once again, everyone’s eyes will be on Medicine man Leo, as he is waiting for his 700th goal. He has been quite off since the return to continue his aggressive goal scoring form. As Riqui Puig possess different qualities than other Barca midfielders, he is expected to start alongside in-form Rakitic. Riqui has been brilliant on his past two games, he presses, controls the game, and he’s a great ball carrier who can link Barca midfield and attack. His movements are instrumental against rigid Atletico side. Off the ball movements are so important in this game to dismantle Atletico.
As Barcelona’s fate is tied with this game, it is a must-win game for the Catalans. A lot of whispers regarding Setien’s future are floating around in Catalan air. This match might be the decider of Setien’s fate. With many unanswered questions and no margin of error, can Barcelona press Real Madrid in the title race?