The FourFourTwo Preview: Atletico Madrid vs Barcelona
And so yet another draw for Spain's top two sides. These encounters are perhaps the best example of how Barcelona's level has dropped since Pep Guardiola left, and how Atlético Madrid's have improved under Diego Simeone.
ATLETICO MADRID FORM
- Atletico 1-0 Villarreal (Lge)
- Barca 1-1 Atletico (Cup)
- Athletic Bilbao 1-2 Atletico (Lge)
- Atletico 1-0 Granada (Lge)
- Real Betis 0-2 Atletico (Lge)
- Barca 3-1 Real Betis (Lge)
- Barca 1-1 Atletico (Cup)
- Espanyol 0-1 Barca (Lge)
- Barca 3-0 Celta Vigo (Lge)
- Real Madrid 3-4 Barca (Lge)
Atlético's star striker Diego Costa was forced off through injury early in the first leg, but his namesake and replacement, a January capture from Wolfsburg, struck a sublime finish into the top corner. "When I saw the ball go in I almost wanted to celebrate it, it was a tremendous goal," said rival manager Gerardo Martino, on the Brazilian's strike.
Simeone was just as enthused for the attacking midfielder: "I'm delighted for him because he's been working so hard in silence and today was an example that hard work always pays off in football."
Barcelona's defence has had its critics over the last few years, and is now the weakest it has been in that period. Víctor Valdés was last week ruled out for the season, and then Gerard Piqué was subbed after 12 minutes at the Camp Nou with a fractured hip. Club captain Carles Puyol retires at the end of the season and currently returning from a knee injury – just terrific when you've recently been slapped with a two-transfer-window ban on signing new players. It leaves youngster Marc Bartra partnering Javier Mascherano at centre-back, and perennial No.2 José Pinto in goal once more.
The huge debt at Atletico, meanwhile, means there's an element of now or never at the Vicente Calderón. Their hierarchy maintain that they don't need to sell, but they have made such claims in the past before shipping out Sergio Agüero and David de Gea to Manchester. They will find it difficult to turn down huge bids for at least one of their top performers, namely 33-goal Costa.
Barcelona could also be severely depleted by next season with their pre-planned departures. If they aren't allowed to enter the transfer market in the next two windows, the Blaugrana will be significantly under-strength in comparison to previous seasons.
At 1-1, both teams will feel they are well placed to take advantage of the opposition's problems and advance to the semi-finals.
Key battle: David Villa vs Javier Mascherano
The former team-mates come face-to-face with added significance thanks to the loss of their positional partners to injury. Neither player is blessed with height, but it's on the floor where the victor will be decided.
Villa came close to scoring a couple of times in the first encounter, although only managed one effort on target from his four. The natural finisher makes clever runs into the channels and is always a danger in the area, while his diagonal sprints on the counter could be enough to unnerve the unfamiliar pairing of Bartra and Mascherano. At Barça, Villa was pushed wide to accommodate Lionel Messi, and now at the Vicente Calderón he has been forced to play a co-starring role to Costa.
Mascherano has been a revelation at centre-back since Guardiola dropped him deeper nearly four years ago. His reading of the game is excellent and his tenacious tackling adds bite to the backline. It's fair to say it hasn't been his best season, however, and the team's intermittent pressing from the front has seen him isolated on more occasions. The former Liverpool midfielder also struggles from set-pieces as his concentration slips. The Argentine will need to be back on top form in order to organise the team's threadbare defensive unit.
Expect more of the same tactically, which is no great shame. Both managers were pleased with the overall outcome of the first leg and feel there is everything to play for in Madrid. "I'm delighted we were able to compete with Barcelona," declared Simeone. "You don't earn the right to do that in a day, you earn it with hard work, and today we showed we can compete with them."
Martino was also pleased with his team's performance. "The way Barca played fills me with pride," said the Argentine. "Sometimes it paid off, other times it didn't, but if we keep playing this way we will have every chance of success."
Facts and figures
- Barcelona have not lost a match in the CL quarter-finals since April 2003, winning 8 and drawing 7 of their games at this stage since.
- Barcelona have won just 2 of their previous 7 CL matches against fellow Spanish sides (W2 D3 L2).
- Atlético have conceded only 5 goals in their 9 CL games this season; no side in the competition has conceded fewer.
- Overall in CL history, Barcelona have seen 27 red cards given to opponents; 9 more than any other side in the competition.
- Lionel Messi has scored 67 goals in 85 Champions League appearances (excl. quals) – the only player to have scored more CL goals is Raul (71 in 142 apps).
More FFT Stats Zone facts
Just like the Supercopa, this could be decided by away goals. Expect another draw with Barcelona advancing.