Only 10 days ago it was difficult to envisage any team stopping Barcelona’s seemingly inexorable match toward an unprecedented back-to-back treble. But in another illustration of how quickly things can change and how little can be taken for granted, the mood has altered to such a degree that the word “crisis” is now being whispered by some in connection with Luis Enrique’s all-conquering side.
While such a portrayal is surely a gross exaggeration of Barcelona’s predicament, back-to-back La Liga defeats have cut their lead atop the table over Atletico Madrid to just three points. And in the Champions League, Atletico are breathing down their necks, too. A narrow 2-1 win over Diego Simeone’s outfit in the first leg of their quarterfinal last week leaves Barcelona’s progression in the balance going into Wednesday’s second leg at the Vicente Calderon.
The pressure is very much on Barcelona heading into what is sure to be one of the loudest and most intense atmospheres that will have been witnessed anywhere in Europe this season. The atmosphere on the pitch is likely to be red-hot, too, given Barcelona will be encountering an Atletico side that have reason for extra motivation beyond simply sealing a semifinal berth.
The first leg between the sides at the Camp Nou was a fiery affair that featured 12 yellow cards, one red card and several moments of controversy. Fernando Torres was given two bookings within 11 minutes of giving Atletico the lead. After the match, both Simeone and defender Filipe Luis both suggested UEFA officials give Barcelona preferential treatment, pointing to Torres’ sending off and the failure to give Luis Suárez the same punishment for kicking out at Juanfran.
Suárez would go onto have a crucial impact on the game, scoring two second-half goals as Barcelona finally managed to take advantage of Atletico’s numerical disadvantage. The Uruguayan’s importance to the side was evident once again in his absence from the lineup on Saturday. With Suárez rested, along with Andres Iniesta and Jordi Alba, Barcelona failed to break down Real Sociedad at the Anoeta, going down to a shock 1-0 defeat.
Just hours before Barcelona’s latest slip up, following hot on the heels of their Clasico loss to Real Madrid the previous week, Atletico fought back from behind to win 3-1 at Espanyol. It was the third consecutive match in which Torres had found the net, but the man who scored the goal that confirmed Barcelona’s defeat in the 2012 Champions League semifinals when with Chelsea will now have to sit out the second leg through suspension. Young Argentine Angel Correa looks the likeliest replacement.
In order to progress, Atletico will also have to overcome a seven-match losing streak against Barcelona. Yet plenty of inspiration can be drawn from the sides’ only previous Champions League tie, when Atletico secured a 1-0 second-leg victory at the Calderon to progress to the semifinals. The same result on Wednesday and it will be Simone’s side celebrating once again.
Atletico Madrid: While without Torres, Atletico could be boosted by the availability of fellow center-backs José María Giménez and Stefan Savic, with both back in training.
Barcelona: Suárez, Iniesta and Alba are set to return to the starting lineup, while Rafinha has joined Jeremy Mathieu on the sidelines after picking up an abductor injury.
Prediction: We can only guess how the first leg would have played out had Torres not been sent off, with Atletico having made a fine start. Still, Barcelona deserve plenty of credit for the way they managed to breakdown Atletico’s fervent resistance in the second half. Suárez was crucial in that and his running in behind and penalty-box scrapping will be vital once again if Barcelona are to get a precious away goal at the Calderon. It is difficult to imagine Simeone instructing his team to throw men forward early on, meaning the likely scenario is Atletico attempting to keep things tight before snatching a goal from a set-piece or a counter-attack. It is sure to be a tense affair, with the outcome likely to be in the balance until the very end, but Barcelona’s attacking quality could just secure their progress.
Predicted score: Atletico Madrid 1-1 Barcelona