Simeone, high-flying Atletico look to finally exorcise their Barcelona demons
Finally. Atletico Madrid finally have a home game immediately after playing in the Champions League — and it is about time! After taking on difficult away trips directly after five of their six European group stage games, Los Rojiblancos can rest safe in the knowledge that following Tuesday’s visit to Leverkusen they will play in front of their own fans this weekend.
As the saying goes: If something sounds too good to be true, then that is because it probably is. And it is in this case: Atletico face Barcelona on Sunday. Conspiracy theorists will suggest it is more than a quirk of the fixture list and that after playing a continental match midweek, the club’s weekend fixtures have been against Valencia, Sevilla, Real Sociedad, Osasuna and Villarreal (all away). Now they have the “luxury” of hosting Barcelona.
For the record, after their Champions League round of 16 fixtures Real Madrid faced Espanyol at home, while Barcelona welcomed lowly Leganes to the Camp Nou. Sevilla, meanwhile, like Atletico, get the raw end of the deal and have the Seville derby away to Real Betis.
This will be the third time the two sides have faced each other in February — after the two Copa del Rey humdingers — and if it is half as good as the previous encounters then we are in for a real treat.
Given the contrasting circumstances in the Champions League, it is almost certain to be the final time the clubs meet at the Vicente Calderon. The match will be Diego Simeone’s 300th at the helm of Atleti, while it appears it will be the last time he and Luis Enrique will face off as bosses of their current clubs.
Barca — and Enrique in particular — are something of a bete noire for Simeone. The Argentine has won just twice in 20 encounters against the Catalan giants (admittedly, both victories came in Champions League quarterfinal second legs), while of the 11 meetings between himself and Enrique, Simeone has lost eight, drawn twice and won just once. There is something about Atletico that sees the likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez turn it on.
This time round, Simeone must change that. Four points behind Sevilla in the third and final automatic Champions League spot, Los Colchoneros are still far from guaranteed a seat at Europe’s top table next season. Another defeat against the Blaugrana is not an option given fifth-placed Real Sociedad are just one point back.
In the most recent two meetings with Barcelona the 46-year-old has shown he has learned from past mistakes. They were the better side over their two Copa semifinal ties and only profligacy and Messi’s individual brilliance cost them. After a tactical masterstroke and bold team selection exploited the shaky Bayer Leverkusen backline in midweek, Simeone must do likewise.
Kevin Gameiro, Yannick Carrasco and Antoine Griezmann have to start in tandem and get at a fragile Barcelona defence that has just shipped four away to PSG and will be missing Javier Mascherano.
The turnaround in fortunes during February for Carrasco and Gameiro has been astounding. The Belgian winger had a fine six weeks earlier in the season, however he went 13 games without a goal between November and February. It looked as if the purple patch had been the exception, rather than the rule. Yet in the last month he has regained his mojo and looks threatening again with two goals in his last three outings.
Gameiro, meanwhile, is a confidence player and right now he appears to be on top of the world. He has scored five in four games this month, including the second-fastest hat trick ever scored in La Liga. The French forward was unplayable at times during the victory over Leverkusen and when he was replaced with 25 minutes to go a perturbed Griezmann remonstrated with the bench.
Factor in that Fernando Torres has netted four times in his last five and Simeone has gone from seemingly having no attacking options to support Griezmann to three in-form players vying for two places. It is a happy selection dilemma to have and having scored 11 times in their last three games attack is for once something Atletico do not have to worry about.
At the back, however, things have been uncharacteristically wobbly and unsurprisingly it is something that has coincided with the loss of Diego Godin and Jan Oblak to injury. The two are back this weekend and should go straight into the starting XI at the expense of Miguel Moya and Stefan Savic, who have been desperate in recent weeks.
With Barcelona on the ropes, his team finding form in attack and welcoming back their first-choice centre-back and goalkeeper there will never be a better opportunity for Simeone to secure a maiden La Liga victory over Barcelona.
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