Following the international break, La Liga throws our way a blockbuster encounter as champions Barcelona face off against challengers Atletico Madrid.

Two of the top three teams in La Liga clash on Saturday night, as third-placed Atletico Madrid welcome reigning champions and league leaders Barcelona to the Wanda Metropolitano.

Twelve games into the season, Barcelona sit at the summit of the La Liga table, having accumulated 24 points (W7, D3, L2). It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for Ernesto Valverde’s men as they have looked susceptible at the back on a number of occasions this term and were beaten 4-3 by Real Betis in their previous game before the international break.

Atletico Madrid are third in the standings, just a point shy of their weekend’s opponents (W6, D5, L1) and level with Sevilla, who occupy the second spot. Diego Simeone’s side pulled off a sensational comeback 3-2 win over Athletic Bilbao a fortnight ago and will be aiming to channel that momentum in the all-important clash against the Catalans this weekend.

Team News & Tactics

Atletico Madrid

Los Rojiblancos have been boosted by the availability of Lucas Hernandez, Diego Costa, Koke, Stefan Savic and Thomas Lemar, all of whom were carrying minor injuries. However, captain Diego Godin, who scored the winner against Bilbao last time out, is sidelined with an injury, along with fellow defenders Jose Maria Gimenez and Juanfran.

Simeone is expected to stick with the 4-4-2 setup against the league leaders, with Jan Oblak guarding the goal for his side. In defence, Santiago Arias is likely to start at right-back in Juanfran’s absence, with Filipe Luis as the left-back. Savic and Hernandez are set to pair up at the heart of the defence.

Summer signing Rodri will anchor the midfield for the home team, while fellow Spanish international Saul Niguez will provide the forward thrust from the centre of the pitch. Koke and Thomas Lemar are set to take up the slots on the right and left flanks respectively, with Angel Correa unlikely to feature from the get-go.

Upfront, Antoine Griezmann is a certain starter and will be key for Atleti’s hopes of coming out on top against Barca. He will be partnered with Costa, who is going through a slump and will be itching to get back to goalscoring ways.

Probable Lineup (4-4-2): Oblak; Arias, Savic, Hernandez, Luis; Koke, Rodri, Saul, Lemar; Costa, Griezmann

Barcelona

The Blaugrana go into the game without two first-team regulars as Philippe Coutinho misses out with injury issues, while Ivan Rakitic is suspended. Samuel Umtiti is back in the reckoning after having been sidelined for over a month, but fellow centre-back Thomas Vermaelen remains absent, along with Sergi Samper.

Valverde will set his team up in a 4-3-3 formation against Los Colchoneros on Saturday night. Marc-Andre ter Stegen should start in goal, after being well-rested for the two weeks having not been called up for the Germany national team during the international window.

At right-back, Sergi Roberto is likely to edge out Nelson Semedo once again, while Jordi Alba is the obvious choice on the opposite side of the backline. Despite Umtiti’s return to fitness, the manager is likely to stick with the defensive partnership of Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet for the trip to Madrid.

Ivan Rakitic’s absence would mean summer signing Arturo Vidal is in line for a rare start for Barcelona. He will be partnered by fellow summer arrival Arthur Melo, while seasoned campaigner Sergio Busquets will hold the fort in the middle of the park.

Club captain and star attacker Lionel Messi will feature from the kick off on the right flank. Coutinho’s injury could mean Malcom gets another go on the left side for the Catalans, ahead of Ousmane Dembele. Spearheading the attack for the champions on Saturday night will be Luis Suarez.

Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Lenglet, Alba; Vidal, Busquets, Arthur; Messi, Suarez, Malcom

Key Stats

  • After 12 games, Barcelona have already conceded 18 goals in La Liga, more than 13 of the other 19 teams in the competition.
  • Atletico Madrid, on the other hand, have the meanest defence in the Spanish top-flight, having let in just eight goals so far this term.
  • Barcelona are undefeated in 25 of their last 27 matches on the road in the La Liga. Atletico, though, have won 12 of their previous 16 home games in all competitions.
  • Atletico Madrid have not beaten Barcelona in La Liga since February 2010 – a winless run stretching for 16 games (D4 L12). They have, however, defeated the Catalans twice in the UEFA Champions League during this period.
  • Diego Costa has gone eighteen matches without a goal in La Liga for Atletico Madrid. The 30-year-old’s last league goal came in February earlier this year, in a 5-2 win over Sevilla.

Player to Watch

Lionel Messi (Barcelona)

Barca's Captain Fantastic (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

Barca’s Captain Fantastic (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

Having made a swift return from an arm injury against Real Betis, the little magician almost managed to spark a sensational comeback, scoring twice, but ultimately couldn’t rescue a point for Barcelona. Messi has already amassed 14 goals in just 13 matches in all competitions this season and has chalked up six assists as well.

The 31-year-old relishes playing against Atletico Madrid and has plundered 28 goals against Los Colchoneros in 32 matches till date – only against Sevilla has the Argentine superstar scored more goals in his career. Coming into the game well-rested after the two-week break, he will be raring to go on Saturday night. Expect him to spark some fireworks at the Wanda Metropolitano.

Prediction

Atletico Madrid 1-2 Barcelona

They may have scored three in their previous game, but goals have been a problem for Atletico Madrid this season. Star man Antoine Griezmann has scored just thrice in the league, while Diego Costa is yet to get off the mark in the competition either. A lot of credit must go to their resolute defence and Jan Oblak’s goalkeeping for their solid start.

On the other hand, Barcelona have had it the other way, with their backline being exposed on numerous occasions, while there have been little problems going forward.

Saturday’s game promises to be a tight contest between Barca’s powerful attack and Atleti’s solid defence. However, without Diego Godin, Jose Gimenez and Juanfran, the home team might find it difficult to stem the visitors’ forward line led by the brilliant Messi. And as a result, we at The Hard Tackle expect the Catalans to come away with a narrow win.