Tomorrow Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid host Gerardo Martino’s Barcelona in the most important game of the season. Both sides had near perfect first halves in their 2013-14 campaigns, and it’s only fitting that they did not have the chance to stand in each other’s way until the last match day. It was easy to forget they hadn’t faced each other yet, particularly because they have already met twice in the Supercopa, which I wrote about in August. Here is a preview of what to expect.
Identical records through contrasting styles and experiences
At face value, very little separates the two sides. Barcelona have, by one goal over Real Madrid, the best attack in the league. This is surprising given that they’ve not counted on Messi through injury, but more on that later. Atletico Madrid have, by one goal over Barcelona, the best defense in the league. Indeed both teams have kept nine clean sheets in eighteen matches so far, also tied for the best in the league by some margin. But with only six goals less than Barcelona, Atletico pose a formidable attacking threat in their own right.
Simeone as the best thing since sliced bread
Simeone has become nothing less than a cult hero in Spain, a country still reeling in economic turmoil. His workmanlike philosophy of going “game by game” has resonated as much with Atletico’s working class fan base as with the larger swath of Spanish society who make due with what they have in tough times. It is a remarkable and inspiring success story that he has been able to take this group of players this far by implementing such a simple and effective strategy, but you can be sure that more than a few will be rooting for the little guy.
The single biggest factor on the pitch for Atletico Madrid has to be their star striker, Diego Costa. In the absence of Messi, it has been the Brazilian’s season as he embodies Simeone’s spirit on the pitch: both provocative and brutally effective. But for all of his talk early on that he did not have the resources to compete with the big two, Simeone has also gotten the most from his bench. And by quietly moving for players like Argentina international José Sosa in the transfer window and not selling Costa, Koke, or Arda as many had expected, Atletico are poised to legitimately take their treble challenge deeper than many thought they could.
Martino as imposter
Martino, on the other hand, has been overly scrutinized after successfully dealing with a number of hurdles in his first half season in charge. He was forced by injury to deal with the dogged “Messi-dependence” for goals and has the side scoring more evenly than in recent years and still boasting the best attack in the league. It was no small feat to introduce variety into the Barcelona attack, but Martino was able to do so early on by playing to the individual strengths of players like Fàbregas and Alexis, both of whom are having their best seasons yet at the club. He also erased doubts over his controversial choice not to sign a big name center back by getting great performances from Mascherano and the outgoing Victor Valdes, with the side conceding fifty percent fewer goals than at the same point last season. And finally, he has reached into each corner of the squad getting great performances from previously unused subs like Bartra and Song, and has even given youth players like Adama their debut, making Barcelona’s bench look a lot longer than it did last season.
But alas, despite achieving nearly identical numbers to each of Pep’s four seasons, the attacks leveled against Martino for not being in touch with Barcelona’s philosophy and indeed for not having the “Barça DNA” have been difficult to understand. Indeed, the first mentions of Martino and the Barça DNA came from this blog’s season preview post over the summer. I identified him positively, and now that Messi will be back for the second half of the season, the rest of the Spanish press should do so accordingly.
There will be no contingency in this match. Everything from who wins the coin toss has been meticulously planned. This should be a relatively cagey affair with the home side looking to the crowd and the ref for advantages, and the away side looking control, but not give away much space in behind. While Simeone’s players have proven their tactical adaptability this season, Martino showed in their first meeting that he has more flexibility and contingency built into his scheme. But this was only enough to win the Supercopa on away goals. If the sides are to break the deadlock tomorrow, it will have to be because of who better implements his Plan A on the day.
In prematch statements, Martino has downplayed the importance of the match, mostly to justify Lionel Messi’s possibly starting on the bench. Simeone has alluded to the improvement he’s seen in his opponents since the arrival of his counterpart, though he laughs off the thought that Messi won’t start. This is the last game of the first half of the season, the one to decide the winter champions. But it is also the first game of the rest of the season, as any advantage gained tomorrow could spell the difference in the run up to the final match next May.
Three things to look for in the game tomorrow:
1. Messi in? Or on the bench? Atletico have been brutally physical at times, and the timing of Messi’s inclusion may play a key role. If he is indeed brought on in the second half, expect Simeone to react with one or two sets of fresh legs to counter.
2. Costa individual battle. Alba was the victim of endless intimidation/irritation by Diego Costa in the first meeting between the sides. Expect the Brazilian to paint a target on at least one player in the first half to destabilize the run of play and get Barcelona off of their game.
3. Energy levels. Barcelona conserve energy by keeping the ball. Atletico Madrid generally do not conserve energy, though they do turn it up and down at strategic points of the match. Atletico score more goals in the second half, and Barça have let in more than they have scored in the last ten minutes of games this season. If they haven’t burned out by end of the match, Atletico may press hard for the draw or the win, so definitely don’t turn this one off early!