Can David Villa and Atletico take their chance vs. Barca?

Posted by Graham Hunter

During their horror years, when they simply could not defeat Real Madrid, it was just about all that Atletico Madrid fans could concentrate on.

They developed top footballers (Fernando Torres being one) and often signed excellently, like Kun Agüero, for example. They began to win trophies, indeed to outstrip los Blancos in recent years. But ending the searing pain and humiliation of finding a hundred different ways to lose to Real Madrid -- abject surrender, last-minute penalties, red cards, collapsing from a winning position, earning moral victories but losing the points ones -- was always top item on the agenda.

Now they've done that. On their shopping list this season there are a number of "must-do" reminders.

1. Win another trophy

2. Win the league if possible

3. Defeat Real Madrid again just to make sure that long suffering Colchoneros feel about that the same way Abraham van Helsing felt about stakes and vampires

4 Stop shipping ludicrous amounts of goals against Barca

Believe it or not, there was a time when you couldn't hear the "Barca, Barca … BAAAR-SA!" chant from the 98,000 fans at the Camp Nou, given the knocking of their knees and the nervous chattering of their teeth when Atletico came to town. When Torres was at his most imperiously powerful for Atletico -- he seemed to glide rather than run, and his ability to tower over Carles Puyol was supernatural -- the Rojiblancos used to turn up at the Camp Nou absolutely sure that they'd take three points away with them.

From the point at which that run ended just before Torres moved to Liverpool, Barca have scored 49 goals in 15 games against Atletico -- nearly 3½ goals per match. It's extraordinary.

During those fifteen meetings, Atletico have, admittedly, registered three victories. But, frankly, it's an abysmal record.

All of this provides the context why it's hugely important for Diego Simeone's team, whether they win the Spanish Supercup or not, to make it hard for Barca to play them again and not to ship in crazy, dopey goals -- ideally, this also means that they do actually lift the silverware at the Camp Nou a week on Wednesday.

The first leg is at the Vicente Calderon this Wednesday night, and it's in Atletico's home ground that each of those three victories has come. Thus, you can deduce that it's imperative for Atletico to start with a win this week if they are going to add a sixth trophy in the past three years.

Given all this pressure, the spotlight will train, relentlessly, on David Villa.

When a club like Atletico loses Radamel Falcao but can immediately count on Diego Costa, Leo Baptistao and the Spanish national team's all-time top scorer, it's an indication of how shrewd they've become in the transfer market. The fans patently think so, too. When Villa was presented in midsummer, 20,000 supporters turned up to hail the man they hope will be the new messiah. It was a heady atmosphere, and Villa, still stung by the minor role he was offered by Vicente Del Bosque during the Confederations Cup and robbed of a decent summer holiday by the need to very promptly join Atletico's preseason training, just lapped it up.

These have been a series of dark months from him, dating back to his broken tibia in Japan at the World Club Championship. An overlong recuperation, no European Championships and a clear feeling that he was being squeezed out by lesser players, particularly Alexis, at the Camp Nou last season -- all of it left a dark cloud hanging over the head of this saturnine man.

For a long spell, he thought he'd be playing his football at Arsenal or Spurs in 2013-14. Andre Villas-Boas made a long and convincing presentation to Villa's agent, but, eventually, the Spaniards tired of Daniel Levy's negotiating pyrotechnics.

So here he is, at the spearhead of a competent, hard-working and athletic squad that has learned the winning habit. One that has learned the sacrifices needed on a daily basis if one is to lift the big prizes.

But it's important for Villa to start well. Toward the end of last season, a combination of his eroded confidence and dwindling match sharpness meant that he was missing sitters. Part of his decision to sign for Atletico, rather than to dig in during the summer and wait for a move to England to materialize, was the fact that he wanted to play Champions League football. He also wanted to play regularly, each week, so that he becomes a "must-choose" option for Vicente Del Bosque should Spain qualify for the 2014 World Cup.

Thus, the sooner the goals return to El Guaje's boots, the better for everyone, with the possible exception of Barcelona over the next eight days.

This is also the kind of match that in Spain can be said to have morbo, that schadenfreude fascination as to whether or not it can be Villa who can rob Barcelona of another title. His talent is certainly innate. Villa has tremendous technical skills and has made sure to hone them, rather than treat them complacently, over his lengthy career.

But he's also really street smart. When he's at his best, you'd hate to play him. In fact, when I interviewed him during the World Cup, just before the final against Holland, he told me that "friends" in other teams often told him that he was a real pain in the butt to have to mark. So, naturally, he'll be trying to use the fact that he knows the Barca defence inside and out to "nefarious" use. All their strengths and, especially last season, their many weaknesses.

During Tata Martino's competitive debut against Levante this past Sunday, his team played electrically well. Quick in the pass, moving off the ball, pressing and attacking like there was no tomorrow. There were long spells when Victor Valdes was the only player in his half of the pitch. Full back Dani Alves scored from the position you'd normally expect a centre forward to occupy, while Adriano, the other full back, won the penalty from which Lionel Messi scored his second goal.

The summary is that Barcelona lived up to Martino's analysis of his own coaching philosophy, in that he likes his last defender to be able to look over his shoulder and see a 40-yard space between him and his own goalkeeper. Villa, too, will have noted that when he watches the tape of the game -- Atletico were in Sevilla that night preparing for their mighty 3-1 away win.

Barca played well, pressed well, look sharp, and they know they need to please their new coach who's made it clear that everyone -- yes, Leo, you, too -- will be rotated so that they get rest and, theoretically, make it to the trophy end of the season less exhausted.

But they leave space and those are the openings that make strikers like Villa lick their lips in anticipation.

"Obviously, we've got some chances of victory in this Supercup," he underlined on Monday. "I was at Barca for three years, and the teams who made it difficult for us were the ones who did all their jobs absolutely perfectly when they played us."

"I'd say it's essential that we take an advantage from the first game to the second leg. Barcelona should start as favourites, but finals are unpredictable affairs, and Atletico have shown their power in recent seasons when it comes to the final occasion against big-name teams."

"We have to deny them the ball, deny them space. But, above all, commit absolutely no errors and take any goal chances that come our way."

The one other thing you can say about Atletico is that when the Calderon is behind them, it is, literally, a cauldron of noise, probably the most consistently hostile, full and loyal stadium in Spain. They now have the chance to win their first Supercup since the days when Raddy Antic, Kiko and Pantic won them the double in 1996.

It will be utterly frantic at the home of the Colchoneros this week. A win won't guarantee them the trophy -- this Barca side is good, quick and dangerous -- nor would a win in the Supercup guarantee them further trophies this season. But they are building something at Atletico and building it quite well, too.

All around Spain, except for in the Camp Nou and at the Bernabeu, I suspect that football fans will be crossing their fingers for a Villa-inspired victory.

Honestly, it's set up beautifully. This is a cracking football story that is ready to unravel in front of us over the next eight days.


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