Barcelona face season-defining match against Atletico Madrid

Posted by Dermot Ledwith

Some things in life come down to good timing, the luck of being in the right place at the right time or being able to count on something at precisely the ideal moment. Barcelona will be hoping this is the case on Saturday night in the Vicente Calderon when they meet Atletico Madrid, the only team that has managed to match their incredible points total of 49 from a possible 54 so far.

Barca are in good form having scored 26 and conceding five goals in seven since their only league defeat of the season in Bilbao on Dec. 1. And on Wednesday night Lionel Messi returned after more than two months out due to a hamstring injury with two of those goals. Xavi Hernandez says the team is "enchufadisimo," or completely switched on and fired up, but so too are Atletico.

The last game of the first half of the season will decide which side is the traditional winter champion, but more important a victory now for either side could go a long way to deciding the ultimate champions. And with Real Madrid hovering five points behind, a draw on Saturday would really turn La Liga into an exciting three-horse race.

As the last game of the first round of matches, it automatically means it will be the last fixture of the season as well. What’s the chance these sides are equal on points at that stage? Until now they have matched each other point for point and crucially both sides beat Real Madrid to open up that five-point gap.

The similarities do not end there; both topped their Champions League groups and there was nothing between the two Argentine-coached sides in the season-opening Spanish Super Cup. Barca took that trophy thanks to the one away goal managed in the draw at the Calderon after a goalless return in Camp Nou. Diego Simeone’s side matched Barca on those two occasions and had their chances to claim victory in the second game.

Atletico have been invincible so far at home, and like Barca both sides have nine wins from nine. With an expected sellout 55,000 crowd on Saturday, this match really is poised to be explosive.

Atletico’s success this season is more surprising given the sale of last season’s goal machine Radamel Falcao in the summer. What nobody could envisage was Diego Costa filling that hole to the level he has managed; with 19 goals so far, Barca must find a way to stop him.

That job is likely to be led by the centre half partnership of Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique. Martino’s favoured defensive pairing have played 17 out of Barca’s 29 matches this season. Jordi Alba has played enough now since injury to be trusted on the left and the only defensive dilemma will be Martin Montoya or Dani Alves on the right. Alves had the flu during the week and may miss out. Of course, the youngster Montoya also offers more defensive stability.

With Victor Valdes back in goal and a midfield trio of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets that picks itself, it is the attacking options that will have been keeping Martino awake this week. Just exactly which two do you leave out from Neymar, Messi, Cesc Fabregas, Pedro and Alexis Sanchez?

Leaving Neymar on the bench would be the obvious choice, but he offers the ability to destabilise Atletico’s organisation in any area of the pitch. Much will depend on whether Martino sees Messi as ready to go from the start. But playing either star may be a risk.

Messi proved he can be as decisive as ever with two goals in 30 minutes on Wednesday, but that was against a Getafe side already two goals down. Only Martino and his staff have the inside info on whether Messi can be asked to put in a full shift against top opposition.

If Martino prefers to use one or both from the bench he could be excused; none of his other attacking options deserve to be dropped on current form. Martino admitted as much on Wednesday night.

Fabregas along with Neymar and Koke from Atletico have given the most assists in La Liga this season, and whether he is deployed as a false nine or further back he provides more goals than the Brazilian and is in better form. Who Martino finally goes with is anybody’s guess. What is certain is that if things are not going well they can be quickly changed with talent off the bench.

All set then for a cracking game that could define Barca’s season.

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