Barcelona will be aiming to maintain their strong run of form when they host Atlético Madrid in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals on Wednesday. Storm clouds were forming over the Camp Nou following a 1-0 defeat to Real Sociedad at the start of the year, which was followed by the dismissal of sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta, the resignation of his assistant Carles Puyol and strong rumors of a rift between coach Luis Enrique and star man Lionel Messi. But things now look a little brighter on the back of four straight wins by an aggregate score of 16-1, which included an impressive 3-1 defeat of their next opponents.
That win came after Barcelona failed to beat Atlético in six attempts last season, with Diego Simeone’s side getting the only victory in that time to decide the sides’ Champions League quarterfinal. And Enrique believes his team could now have an important psychological boost.
“To have won that game does not influence the next meeting, but it does mean we go into the game well after failing to win in the six games last season,” he said at his pre-match press conference, reports Barcelona-based publication Sport.
A 4-0 win at Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday came when Enrique selected the same starting lineup for consecutive matches for the first time since he took charge last summer. The former Celta Vigo coach’s selection will be complicated on Tuesday, though, by the return to fitness of Xavi. Defender Jeremy Mathieu remains unavailable.
Enrique’s options appear fairly straightforward up front, with the trio of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez set to be deployed once again after all three scored against Atlético 10 days ago. It’s a contrasting situation for Enrique’s counterpart, who is set to pick two from three of Mario Mandzukic, Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres. It was Torres, supplied by Griezmann, who got both of Atlético’s goals at the Bernabeu last week to secure a 4-2 aggregate win over Real Madrid. Meanwhile, in a 2-0 win over Granada on Sunday, Simeone fielded Mandzukic and Torres together.
“The key is to be determine how and where to attack,” he said, according to Atlético Madrid’s official website. “If we can take the game to where we want to and attack where we want to, we will have options. We need to understand how to attack a team like Barcelona. And if we understand that, we will have options.”
Simeone’s options are less complex in midfield, where Tiago is still recovering from injury. Whoever plays, the Argentinian stressed that it’s crucial for his side to play with the trademark intensity that was missing from their last visit to the Camp Nou.
“We need to start the game better because the beginning was not good,” he added. “We didn't play with the intensity and pressure we usually do. And against a team like Barcelona, who did very well in the first half hour, we struggled.”
Prediction: It was against Atlético that Enrique for the first time got his front three playing to a plan rather than simply hoping that their extraordinary talents would be sufficient. Both in that match and since, Messi has stuck much more to the right-sided position where he first made his name, which, with Neymar wide on the other side, has allowed Suárez greater space and opportunity to make an impact. The midfield has looked better, too, helped by Ivan Rakitic getting a run in the team. There will be much interest then to see whether the veteran Xavi will come back into the lineup.
Barcelona would certainly appear to be slight favorites heading into the first leg, especially with the effort Atlético poured into their two-legged win over local rivals Real Madrid. However, Atlético relish thwarting the big teams and are likely to be further fueled by the memory of their disappointing performance so recently against the same opponents. It could be enough to come away with a draw before heading back to the Vicente Calderon for the second leg in a week’s time.
Barcelona 1-1 Atlético Madrid
Kickoff time: 4 p.m. EST
TV channel: beIN Sports
Live stream: beIN Sports Connect