Four games, two goals scored, two conceded and four draws. That is how Atlético Madrid’s record against Barcelona reads after Tuesday’s Champions League quarter-final draw and they will be well aware that prolonging or even improving upon that sequence of results will be a defining factor in the season’s run-in, writes David Kennedy.
The job Diego Simeone has done since arriving at the Vicente Calderón in December 2011 is nothing short of exceptional for a manager whose only previous managerial experience outside of Argentina was a decent six-month spell at Catania. A Europa League, European Super Cup and Copa del Rey later and Atlético’s bid to win an unthinkable Primera División and Champions League double is suddenly attainable – and in their own hands.
One point clear of Barca (who they play on the final day of the season at the Camp Nou) and three clear of city rivals Real (who they have a head-to-head advantage over) with seven games remaining, Los Colchoneros have regained momentum after a tricky February saw them lose consecutive away games at Osasuna and Almería. With five wins on the bounce in the league coupled with a 5-1 aggregate beating of AC Milan in the last sixteen in Europe, fears of burnout are gradually being dispelled.
Those doubts were well-founded; Simeone asks his side to work extremely hard, particularly off the ball (34% possession on Tuesday) and the squad is on the thin side. That said, Diego Ribas and José Sosa have added depth in attacking areas as illustrated against Barca. Disaster appeared to have struck when Diego Costa limped off with a hamstring injury just before the half-hour mark, but it was his replacement and namesake Ribas who fired home the all-important away goal in the second half with a thunderous long-range drive.
Getting Costa back to full fitness will be crucial to Atléti’s hopes of success. The Brazilian-come-Spaniard has been outstanding for the last twelve months, scoring his 33rd goal in 44 games this season to see off Athletic Bilbao at the weekend. He is unlikely to feature in Saturday’s game at home to Villarreal and it remains to be seen if his involvement in the Champions League tie has finished.
However, Barcelona are not without injury problems of their own. Victor Valdés will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury while Gerard Piqué also hobbled off during the 1-1 and is out for four weeks. A central defence of Javier Mascherano and Marc Bartra with José Manuel Pinto behind it is unlikely to phase the considerable attacking talents Atlético still possess – David Villa, Arda Turan, Koké and, back from suspension, Raúl Garcia. Should Costa be ruled out of the return, it will probably be the latter playing off David Villa at the Calderón.
Of course, the tie is far from over. Barca possess as much attacking talent as any other side still in the competition and will fancy their chances of scoring an away goal. Simeone will most likely be content to get out with a clean sheet that he knows will see his team through to the semis and the Champions League’s best defence is well-equipped to do that. Thibaut Courtois showed again on Tuesday what a valuable asset Chelsea still have on their books and the Belgian is yet to concede a goal to Lionel Messi this season, while Diego Godín and Miranda are one of the best defensive partnerships in Europe.
Beating Barcelona over two legs wouldn’t mean mission accomplished for Atléti – whoever their semi-final opponents are would be a stern test, while any slip-ups in the league are likely to be punished by the chasing pack. That said, finishing the job next Wednesday would send a statement to the rest of Europe that this side are a match for anyone.
European champions? Stranger things have happened.
David Kennedy, Pundit Arena.
Featured Image By LauraHale (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.