While El Clasicos still garner the headlines and worldwide attention, it is Barcelona’s clashes with Madrid’s other major club that could be the defining matches of this Primera Division season. With 18 matches of the campaign gone, Atletico Madrid have an identical record to Barcelona at the top of La Liga, with 16 wins and just one defeat. But that is far from the only reason why the meeting between the two sides at the Vicente Calderon on Saturday promises to be such an intriguing occasion.
Such has been the transformation performed on Atletico by Diego Simeone, it is hard to believe that he only just celebrated his second anniversary with the club. Once a tenacious midfielder, who represented Atletico for five years during two spells, Simeone has reinvigorated a club that had been bumbling in its inability to punch its weight for far too long.
Simeone’s impact was immediate as he got his team to play with the same intensity with which he performed as a player. He was then able to alter a defeatist mindset against Spain’s big two, particularly their illustrious neighbors, which had seen them go 25 matches and 13 years since getting the better of Real Madrid. That was shattered in the most glorious manner last May when in the Copa del Rey final, in Los Merengues’ own Bernabeu stadium, Atletico came out on top to lift their first domestic silverware since Simeone was part of the side that won a league and cup double in 1996.
This season, Atletico have added new elements to their play. While their ferocious appetite without the ball remains as a league-best 11 goals conceded demonstrates, they have become more dangerous when in possession. The intensity is still present, with quick, incisive attacks built on the ever-burgeoning relationship between young Spain international midfielder Koke and the man who could be Spain’s trump card in the World Cup, Diego Costa. Meanwhile, Arda Turan and David Villa provide impressive options alongside them.
When Atletico and Barcelona last met, in the Spanish Super Cup at the start of the season, Simeone and Costa showed their tactical flexibility as the Brazilian-born forward was deployed wide on the right and caused the Blaugrana umpteen problems. Atletico were happy to concede possession, but counter-attacked with real vigor and, indeed, had the better chances and were unlucky to lose the two-legged affair on away goals.
While Atletico are at home, have been more forward-thinking this season and Costa is the league’s second highest scorer, the same tactics could again be utilized. Possesing a water-tight defense, led by the partnership of Miranda and Diego Godin, which was in full evidence in an unspectacular 1-0 win to kick off 2014 at Malaga last week, Barcelona will have their work cut out to walk away still top of La Liga.
Still, after a difficult start to his reign, there have been more encouraging signs of late for Simeone’s fellow-Argentine, Gerardo Martino. While results wise Martino has done everything that could have been expected in the first half of the season, he faced much criticism from the Catalan press for the perceived move away from the tiki-taka style that had been so successful in the previous five years.
Although much of that talk was overblown, it was hard to ignore that Barcelona had become less dominant and less pleasing on the eye. While the team was grappling with Martino shifting the focus somewhat from the possession-obsessed philosophy to one where they are prepared to cede the ball and launch quicker attacks, it also had to deal with integrating the different talents of Neymar while their star man, Lionel Messi, looked off color.
As it turns out the unsurprising injury that Messi suffered in November could have been the best thing for both player and club. In his absence, Neymar showed that he could take the mantle, having scored six goals in three appearances before the festive break. And fellow-forwards Pedro and Alexis Sanchez, who have benefited from Martino’s more direct approach appear to have gained further confidence in Messi’s absence, with each hitting a hat-trick either side of the break. Cesc Fabregas has impressed up front, too, as the new year has started with Barcelona showing signs of their best.
Perhaps the injury may be most beneficial to Messi himself. Having not looked right since being rushed back from a muscular problem last spring, he has hopefully now had the proper time needed to recover. Certainly he looked refreshed when making his return against Getafe on Wednesday when scoring two goals off the bench, the second a demonstration of the four-time Ballon d’Or winner at his quick-footed best.
Martino’s biggest challenge could well be deciding which three forwards to select. It is at the other end, though, where Barcelona could be most tested. For a side that still controls possession in most matches, the Catalans give up too many chances, especially from set-pieces. It is difficult to imagine Atletico not creating at least a couple of good opportunities to score on Saturday. And with Costa in lethal form you wouldn’t bet against them getting on the score sheet. It will likely take Barcelona’s attacking players in top form to emerge with something from what has all the ingredients of an intense and captivating matchup.
Prediction: Atletico Madrid 1-1 Barcelona
When: The Spanish Primera Division clash will kick off from the Vicente Calderon at 2 p.m. ET.