For the second week running Atletico Madrid are giving talismanic striker Diego Costa right until kick off to prove he is fit to lead their line against Barcelona. The two teams made it four draws out of four matches between them this season in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal. At the Vicente Calderon on Wednesday there will have to be a winner and with the margins again likely to be incredibly fine, Costa’s presence could prove decisive.
Costa lasted just 30 minutes of last week’s clash at the Camp Nou before limping off with a thigh injury. Having trained, albeit separately on Monday, the Spain international is in the squad, but coach Diego Simeone is still far from sure whether he will even be involved in any capacity.
“If Diego Costa is fit, he plays,” he said, according to Uefa.com. “If he is a little less than 100 percent fit, he will be on the bench. Otherwise he'll be out. We will have a look at [him] in training. If he doesn't make it, Adrian Lopez will play -- if Adrian plays, I'm sure he will have a great game for us.”
Simeone, though, will be hoping that his side does not need to score. Diego’s sensational away goal in the first leg means that Atletico now has the slight edge, in the knowledge that a goalless draw sends them through. When the sides last met at the Vicente Calderon exactly that result was produced. Indeed goals have been at a premium throughout their meetings this season, with just four scored in total.
Much of that can be attributed to the impressive organization and incredible intensity that Simeone has brought to his side’s play. With that base established, their quality with the ball has improved as has, crucially, their mental approach against the very best sides. It is not so long ago that Los Colchoneros shrunk in the face of both Barcelona and Real Madrid. This season, in addition to going undefeated against Barcelona thus far, they have also taken four points off their local rivals. They are now ideally equipped both mentally and tactically to cause the elite clubs problems. And they stand on the verge of Simeone’s crowning achievement.
Atletico may see a little more of the ball on Wednesday in what should be an incredible atmosphere inside the Vicente Calderon, but they will primarily be concerned once more with soaking up pressure and hitting Barcelona on the break. However, their ability to strike on the counter will be compromised by an injury that definitely rules out Arda Turan. The attacking midfielder has been superb for Atletico and can both create and score as well as imbue his side with a sense of assurance.
It is not all doom and gloom from an offensive standpoint. Raul Garcia, with 16 goals to his name this campaign, returns from suspension, while David Villa would love nothing more to knock his former club out of the Champions League.
And a Barcelona defense missing Gerard Pique, who unlike Costa, has no chance of returning from an injury suffered in the first leg, as well as goalkeeper Victor Valdes certainly has the potential to be exposed. Jose Manuel Pinto has been a reliable understudy down the years, but there is now huge responsibility on the 38-year-old’s shoulders. His poor kicking gifted Atletico several chances in the first leg and the cauldron-like Vicente Calderon will test his nerve further.
Of course going forward, Barcelona’s options remain arguably unmatched. Lionel Messi scored twice in a 3-1 weekend win over Real Betis to take his recent tally to just a mere 11 goals in his last seven appearances. Andres Iniesta, again likely to start on left of the forward line on Wednesday, has also been back to his best of late. His assist for Neymar’s goal in the first leg took the breath away. It is the Brazilian who has drawn much scrutiny in recent months, not only for his controversial transfer, but for his dip in performances and his sacrificing in an unfamiliar right-sided role.
The attacking fluency is undeniably not quite as it was, while the aging legs of Xavi contribute to Barcelona being unable to control a game as they did so demonstrably in their four years of dominance. Despite missing one and perhaps two of their key players, Atletico could well avoid defeat again with extra time and even penalties quite possibly needed to finally separate these two sides.
D: Juanfran, Miranda, Godin, Filipe Luis
M: Rodriguez, Thiago, Gabi, Koke
F: Adrian, Villa
D: Dani Alves, Bartra, Mascherano, Alba
M: Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta
F: Neymar, Messi, Iniesta
Where to watch: The second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal will kick off at 2.45 p.m. ET. TV Coverage will be provided by Fox Sports 2 and Fox Soccer Plus, with a live stream available on Fox Soccer 2Go.