League leaders FC Barcelona host Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid at the Nou Camp on Saturday, looking to put a significant dent in the title hopes of their rivals from Madrid.

 

It may be several weeks from now before La Liga’s top team is crowned champion, but Luis Enrique’s FC Barcelona have a fantastic opportunity to effectively end the title race on Saturday. The Catalans have 48 points from 20 league games — four more than arch rivals Real Madrid, and the same amount as Saturday’s opponents. Crucially however, the treble winners also have a game in hand over both their title rivals.

A win on Saturday will open up the gap between themselves and Atléti to three points, while it will also be a blow to Real Madrid, given that there are very few fixtures left in the season from which FC Barcelona can realistically drop points. The Liga leaders have already played Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Sevilla and Valencia away from home, while the only ‘tough’ fixture on paper in the second half of the season away from the Camp Nou is Villarreal at the Estadio El Madrigal.

Luis Enrique has already got the better of Diego Simeone this season, and doing so again would put his side in a very healthy position to lift the league trophy come May.

Luis Enrique v Diego Simeone

The head-to-head record between the two managers when they have been in charge of their current clubs does not make for good reading for Atlético Madrid fans. FC Barcelona have played Los Rojiblancos five times since Luis Enrique’s arrival at the Nou Camp — thrice in the league, in addition to a two-legged Copa del Rey tie last season.

Thus far, the Catalans have won on every single one of those meetings, including a 2-1 victory at the Vicente Calderón in September last year. Overall, Simeone’s record against Barcelona has not been good, with the Argentine registering just one win in 13 attempts against the Blaugrana.

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Luis Enrique could field a more robust midfield on Saturday

Although FC Barcelona are currently on a seven-match winning streak, their run could well have been halted by Malaga in their last La Liga outing. Luis Enrique’s men were particularly poor in the first half, but failed to play at their best even in the second, with Malaga pressing them high up the pitch and creating several chances to score.

FC Barcelona vs Real Betis

The line-up Luis Enrique fielded, particularly in midfield, could have had a lot to do with how the game panned out. Arda Turan and Andrés Iniesta started with Sergio Busquets at the centre of the pitch, despite the absence of the likes of Gerard Piqué, Dani Alves and Jordi Alba in defence. The relative lack of energy and intensity in midfield no doubt encouraged Malaga to advance further up the pitch, and given Atlético Madrid’s aggressive approach, the Barcelona manager might consider making some key changes.

Sergi Roberto or Ivan Rakitić (if not both) could return to the starting line-up, and even though Luis Enrique will encourage his side to stick to doing what they do best, he might feel a degree of comfort in knowing that he will have a more robust midfield to deal with Atlético Madrid’s counter-attacks on Saturday.

Diego Simeone will look to upset FC Barcelona’s rhythm 

As Atlético Madrid have often done against the bigger sides, Simeone will look to make Saturday’s clash a game of attrition. The less-fancied Madrid side cannot compete with Barcelona from a technical stand-point, and as such, must do everything in their power to prevent Luis Enrique’s men from getting into their rhythm.

Atletico Madrid vs RCD Espanyol

Although his out-and-out strikers have not been scoring goals, Frenchman Antoine Griezmann has more than made up for it with his exploits in La Liga this season, and Simeone will look to commit numbers on the counter-attack to try and give the former Real Sociedad forward a chance to find the back of the net at the Nou Camp.

The pace of Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco and Luciano Vietto could be crucial in this clash against the title favourites, and Simeone could look to start with a more attacking line-up than usual, given that FC Barcelona have too much creative ability and attacking nous to not find a way through against a deep-lying defence — albeit the best one in Europe.

Key Battles

Luis Suárez v Diego Godín/José Giménez

La Liga top scorer Luis Suárez will come up against two international team mates on Saturday, and with the Uruguayan hitman in such incredible form, keeping him quiet could have a huge impact on the outcome of the game.

FC BARCELONA VS ATHLETIC BILBAO

The former Liverpool FC striker has an astonishing 30 goals in 31 appearances in all competitions, and will no doubt be looking to add to that tally at the Nou Camp this weekend. Among Suárez’s many strengths, his ability to get involved in the build-up play and drop deep will be crucial against Simeone’s low defensive block, given Godín and Giménez will have to made a decision about whether or not to be drawn out of their defensive line and into midfield to stay tight on the striker.

In addition, Suárez’s movement in the penalty area has already flummoxed defences in Spain this season, and the Atlético Madrid centre-backs will have to be constantly aware of their compatriot’s position to make sure he does not decide the game in the hosts’ favour.

Neymar v Juanfran

The Brazilian has been in stunning form this season, racking up 21 goals and 17 assists in just 26 appearances — the best half-season in his club career till date. Having returned from an ankle injury in FC Barcelona’s 3-1 Copa del Rey win over Athletic Bilbao in midweek, Neymar will look to make his mark on Saturday, and winning his individual battle with Juanfran may enable him to do just that.

The Spaniard has been a consistently solid presence in the Atlético Madrid back four, and even though there is no doubt he will receive help from his team-mates in dealing with Neymar’s threat, FC Barcelona’s ability to move the ball quickly and switch play within seconds means he could end up one-against-one with the 23-year-old on more than one occasion on Saturday. Juanfran will have the unenviable task of stopping his runs into the box, as also tracking his diagonal runs into the penalty area as he looks to latch on to passes from the likes of Lionel Messi.

Antoine Griezmann v FC Barcelona defence

Antoine Griezmann has gained notoriety as arguably the world’s best ‘second striker’, with the Frenchman excelling at playing off a main centre-forward. Simeone has given the former Real Sociedad man a free role, and the 24-year-old has made the most of it, scoring 19 goals in all competitions already this season.

ATLETICO MADRID VS SEVILLA FC

Griezmann will be Atlético Madrid’s biggest attacking threat on Saturday, and his technical ability, movement, and instinctive finishing could cause the FC Barcelona defence some major problems on Saturday. Like so many great goalscorers, the France international seems to have the innate ability to be in the right place at the right time, and the likes of Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano will have to be particular wary of the runs he makes into the penalty area to get on the end of crosses or passes from deep.

FC Barcelona

Strengths

  • Messi, Neymar and Suárez are the best attacking trio in world football by a distance, and their chemistry on the pitch and instinctive understanding of each other’s movements makes it difficult for any defence — even one as disciplined and well-organised as Diego Simeone’s — to prevent them from creating goalscoring opportunities.
  • Sergio Busquets has been one of FC Barcelona’s best players this season, and when the team has needed additional creativity, the Spaniard has stepped up and provided it with his clever through passes and balls over the top of the defence. The home side may well need to call upon that on Saturday.

MALAGA FC VS FC BARCELONA

Weaknesses

  • The Barcelona defence has not looked particularly convincing when exposed, and if Simeone is willing to commit numbers on the break, Atléti may just be able to reap the benefits at the Nou Camp.
  • The likes of Javier Mascherano and Dani Alves are prone to losing their tempers in feisty encounters, and given how frustrating Atlético Madrid can be to play against, that could lead to questionable decision-making.

Atlético Madrid

Strengths

  • No team has conceded fewer goals than Diego Simeone’s side this season — a remarkable 8 in 21 games. In fact, the next best record is FC Barcelona’s, and Luis Enrique’s men have conceded twice as many. Clearly keeping the opposition out is Atléti’s key strength.
  • Los Rojiblancos are a major threat from set-pieces, and the likes of Godín will look to repeat his heroics from the 2013-2014 season once again at the Nou Camp.

Rayo Vallecano vs Atletico Madrid

Weaknesses

  • Scoring goals has clearly been a problem for Simeone’s men this season, and his new summer signings up front have failed to contribute anything significant. From time to time, Atlético Madrid just seem to run out of ideas, and their over-reliance on Antoine Griezmann to find the back of the net might cost them in the future.
  • At times, Simeone is the victim of his own cautiousness. FC Barcelona have been rocked by teams this season that have had the temerity to take the game to them — Celta de Vigo, Sevilla and recently Malaga — and Atléti might just find more joy if they choose to adopt a more proactive approach at the Nou Camp this Saturday.

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