Vicente Caldéron, Madrid
Saturday, January 11, 20:00 GMT
After Copa del Rey action in midweek, La Liga is back this weekend with what could very well end up being the most significant match of the season when all is said and done. Co-leaders Atlético Madrid and Barcelona will face each other at the Vicente Caldéron, with the winner ending the first half of the season as the leader (in case of a draw, Barcelona will remain ahead on goal difference). This is a match that is likely to play a big role to decide who the title will go to, although of course Real Madrid – currently five points behind – can’t be written off by any stretch of the imagination. Fittingly, this match will also signal the return of the mercurial Lionel Messi to action, something that changes the entire complexion of the matchup.
Team News and Tactical Brief
It’d be an understatement to say Atlético have exceeded expectations thus far this season, they have done that and then some and have a chance to finish the first half of the season alone in first place of La Liga with a win over Barcelona in front of their home crowd; given the way they’ve been playing so far this season, that’s hardly a far-fetched scenario – it’s a real possibility. In Diego Costa and David Villa Atlético have arguably the best striker tandem not only in La Liga but world football at the moment: Costa has been a revelation this season and has scored 19 goals in only 17 La Liga appearances, while Villa, although declined, is still showing the same talented and class he has for over a decade now, not to mention he is bound to be extra motivated against his former club. There’s no doubt that Atlético have the attacking firepower to get the job done against any team in the world.
Costa and Villa are far from alone though, behind them there’s a very well-oiled machine with an incredible fighting spirit instilled by Simeone. Atlético are no longer ‘Patético’ as they were often mocked to be in the past by rival teams, they are the real deal and a force to be reckoned with, you can no longer rely on them to throw it all away in key moments. In midfield, Gabi and Thiago will play centrally, with Koke and Arda Turran on the wings. At the back, Courtois will be the keeper as always, with a back four of Filipe Luis, Godin, Miranda and Juanfran. While 4-4-2 was previously thought to be a thing of the past, Atlético (as well as PSG and Manchester City) have been proving that notion wrong this year and they are sure to stick with the system that has brought them so much success so far.
Playing Barcelona is a different challenge to facing basically any other team in Spain or Europe due to how well the Catalans can keep possession regardless of where they are playing, but Simeone is sure to remain faithful to his principles and adopt his usual aggressive approach, looking to go forward at every possible chance. With the crowd fully behind them, Atlético have every reason to believe they can pull off a sensational win in one of the biggest matches (if not the biggest) they’ve played in the past decade.
The biggest news as far as Barcelona is concerned is that Lionel Messi is back and he seems to be eager to pick where he had left off before injury derailed his 2013 year. In midweek against Getafe for the Copa, he came into the pitch with only 30 minutes left to play – enough time to score a brace. Messi’s return is enough to change everything about this match and the season in general for Barcelona, from the team’s mindset to what will actually happen on the pitch. His influence can’t be overstated, Barcelona absolutely need him to navigate through the toughest challenges in the league and in Europe.
Although it’s not certain Messi will start since he has just returned, it’s a pretty safe bet considering his status, with Neymar and Pedro likely to play alongside him in the front three. In midfield, Busquets and Iniesta are almost sure to start but there are doubts over whether Xavi or Fabregas will get the nod; smart money would probably be on Xavi for the control and security he offers in the middle of the park. At the back, Valdés will start, with the tried and tested back 4 of Alba, Piqué, Mascherano and Alves in front of him. For a match of such importance, only the best XI is an option – a potential loss would see Atlético take the lead and, perhaps more importantly, Real Madrid closing in dangerously.
Key Match Facts
- Atlético have won every single home match in La Liga this season so far – 9 wins out of 9, 33 goals scored, only 6 conceded.
- Atlético are one of Lionel Messi’s favorite victims – he has played against them 18 times and scored 20 goals along with two assists.
- Last season’s corresponding fixture ended 2-1 for Barcelona.
Players to Watch Out For
Lionel Messi (FC Barcelona) and Diego Costa (Atlético Madrid)
Messi is widely regarded as the greatest player of his generation and will be back to the La Liga pitches after a long absence; Diego Costa, however, is one of the hottest strikers in Europe at the moment with 19 goals in 17 La Liga matches, being, along with Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the main candidates to win the pichichi this season – an award Messi won in the past two seasons.
In the duel between two of Europe’s best teams at the moments, both sets of supporters will be relying on the talents of Lionel Messi and Diego Costa to get their side through the finish line.
Atlético Madrid 1-1 FC Barcelona
In a very tightly contested affair, the teams will share the spoils and leave everything open for the second half of the season as far as the title race goes. Lionel Messi and Diego Costa will score.