One defeat in fourteen games. Eleven wins, two draws. Such is the imperious form of Atletico Madrid heading into the clash against Barcelona on Sunday night, and it is not difficult to see why the hype around the game is unprecedented.
Barcelona themselves are on their way up from a deep trench. Facing a team in such form is a real test of Xavi’s side, both from a sporting as well as a mental standpoint.
Barcelona’s manager has not lost or drawn once to Diego Simeone in his three head-to-head meetings. At home, further, the Catalans’ winning streak over the Madrid-based outfit goes back nearly four years, for their last defeat was back in January 2020.
Sunday night’s clash will thus be a battle between two teams vying to fight for a title. The victor could take home an advantage on the points table, but will surely go back with confidence in abundance.
Barça Universal brings you three talking points ahead of Barcelona vs Atletico Madrid.
Picking up steam
Barceloana’s form fell steeply in the final few games before the latest international break. The defeat in El Clasico broke the Catalans’ spine, and the subsequent defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk was not surprising by any measure.
Fast forward fifteen days, the world expected Barcelona to come back stronger, rejuvenated and mentally more determined. Yet, all that followed was more of the same.
Xavi’s side were dismal against Rayo Vallecano last weekend and could well have even lost on the day. The game had its set of controversial decisions and moments, but the crux of the matter was that the defending champions were not playing at an optimal level.
The midweek clash against Porto, thus, was pivotal for the La Liga champions. Up against their closest competitors in the UEFA Champions League group, Barcelona went down a goal early to once again put themselves on the back foot.
This time, however, the team did not mentally falter. Joao Cancelo found an equaliser minutes after Porto’s opener and the team slowly began to shift into rhythm. The second half-performance from Barcelona was the best they had produced in recent weeks, and deservedly propelled them to a 2-1 win.
Heading into the second of three virtually must-win games, Barcelona thus have steam on their side. The only question, however, is whether they can hold onto the same and sail through the tide.
The Joao Cancelo question
Joao Cancelo’s performance against Porto was one of the best individual displays Barcelona has seen in recent times. The Portuguese has been sensational since the day he donned the club’s colours for the first time, but he was simply unplayable in their last outing.
It is thus ironic that such a positive development becomes Xavi’s dilemma. After all, Cancelo played as a left-back on the night as opposed to his usual position at right-back.
To not follow up the Portuguese star’s man-of-the-match display at left-back with another start in the position would be criminal. However, Barcelona also do not have another name that can slot into the right side of defence. Moreover, such a change would shift Alejandro Balde, who is one of the team’s key difference-makers, to the bench.
Xavi thus has a big problem at his doorstep. Must Xavi revert to his usual setup of Balde and Cancelo on the left and right respectively, or should he stick to retaining Cancelo at left-back for the must-win game? If he opts for the latter, should Ronald Araujo, Jules Kounde or Balde take over on the right?
There are many questions to answer and not much time for the manager.
A title clash
Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid are rightfully called the big three in Spain. The three elite clubs have been regular faces in the title race season after season in recent years, and clashes between them thus hold a special place on the calendar.
Real Madrid, this season, have been better than their two close rivals and entered the weekend at the top of the league standings with 35 points after 14 games. Both Barcelona and Atleti sit closely behind on 31 points each.
There is, however, one glaring difference between the positions of the two tied clubs. Atletico Madrid have only played 13 games so far this season in La Liga, while Barcelona have taken part in 14. The game in hand is absolutely invaluable.
This very subtle point on the league standings make tomorrow’s clash more important.
Xavi’s side have a lot riding on the game, for a defeat could potentially take them six points behind Simeone’s side. A win, meanwhile, would provisionally take them three points clear and help them close the gap with the Colchoneros if they win their game in hand.