All season Diego Simeone has sought to focus from game to game, repeatedly suggesting that his Atletico Madrid side were the plucky outsider with nothing to lose in a La Liga title race that included the financial and sporting behemoths of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Now just one game to remains and there is everything to lose. Specifically a three point advantage at the top of the table and a first championship in 18 years that was inches away from being theirs less than one week ago.
Barcelona, in contrast, have been given yet another chance to claim a fifth title in six years and by the most improbable. Rarely have they played well in the second half of the season and in recent weeks they have scraped unconvincing wins and uninspiring draws. When the final whistle blew to end a drab goalless draw at Elche last week, they must have thought their difficult season both on and off the pitch had been put out of its misery. Yet, here they are with a chance to be crowned the best team in Spain if they can simply emerge victorious from one 90 minute contest in front of their own fans at their own stadium.
On that basis, it would be understandable to make Barcelona favorites. And the psychological aspect of this contest is certainly incredibly intriguing. But take that out of it, as Simeone will be working desperately to try and do, and this is a scenario that suits Atletico to a tee. After the 1-1 draw with Malaga, in which Atletico were agonizingly close to grabbing a winner that would have sealed the title, Simeone’s disappointment was as evident as that of many of his players. But the Argentinean, who was a member of the last Atletico team to win the title, then once more moved to cast his side as the unfancied outfit heading to the Camp Nou.
It is a formula that has served them phenomenally well in his two-and-a-half years in charge. While Simeone has brought the pride back to Atletico, he has done so by playing up psychologically, tactically and stylistically their outsider status. His team believes that they have to fight with everything to get anything. They are a team that no side wants to come up against, but especially the best sides, against whom Simeone’s formula is best suited.
Certainly Barcelona have extracted very little joy from their five meetings with Los Colchoneros this season. The Catalans have not won a single one and were dumped out of the Champions League by Atletico in the quarterfinals last month. While Atletico have themselves just won one of those matches, all five results they have secured would hand them the title on Saturday.
Atletico have the defensive discipline, and no little ability, led by the central defensive partnership of Miranda and Diego Godin and the tireless midfield shield of Gabi and Tiago to deny Barcelona space and frustrate their attacking endeavors. And in the little time that they do have the ball, Atletico are equipped at getting it forward quickly. It is that which causes Barcelona’s under-furnished defense to be left exposed for the one or two chances that Atletico can capitalize upon.
In aiming to make sure they take advantage of their limited chances at the Camp Nou, Atletico will be helped immeasurably by the return of Diego Costa. There has been much doubt over the fitness of the man who has scored 36 goals in all competitions this season after he was left out of the draw with Malaga, but Simeone has confirmed that the striker will play from the start.
It is not only his goals, but the Spain international’s endless running and tactical flexibility -- he has previously had success being played out wide against Barcelona this season -- that makes him so important. Against a Barcelona defense that will definitely be missing Victor Valdes and may still be without at least a fully-fit Gerard Pique there is certainly ample opportunity to unsettle them. In the Champions League meetings, Valdes’s understudy, Jose Manuel Pinto, made mistakes on several occasions when hurried with the ball at his feet.
Going forward Barcelona have issues, too. Lionel Messi has not been as central a figure of late and his influence has been severely missed. There is, of course, always the chance that Messi could come up with some magic out of nowhere. Indeed, there is the possibility that any of Barcelona’s litany of stars -- Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Alexis Sanchez, the fit again Neymar -- could produce some game-deciding brilliance. A doubtless raucous Camp Nou atmosphere could provide a lift, too. But, in the same way it would be if Barcelona were to win the title, it would be purely based on the individual quality of those players, almost by accident rather than design. The lack of identity out on the pitch has not coincidentally matched that off it. It is extremely difficult to suddenly switch back on the brilliance of old having lacked it for so much of this campaign.
Atletico have, simply put, been the better team this season. And, if they can recover from the blow of last week, there is every reason to think that they will do enough to claim a most extraordinary title victory.
Prediction: Barcelona 1-1 Atletico Madrid