Barcelona v Atletico Madrid preview: The title, if Atleti want it, runs through Barca at Camp Nou
Barcelona v Atletico Madrid, midnight, BeIn Sports 3HD
Camp Nou hosts the first big game of Spain’s Primera Liga season on Wednesday when Barcelona host Atletico Madrid.
Both sides geared up for the encounter by scoring five at the weekend, finding form after earlier stumbles.
After the surprise home defeat to Alaves the previous week, Barcelona put seven past Celtic in the Uefa Champions League and then five past Leganes. They also have a full squad available for the first time this season.
Unlike last season, Luis Enrique has not been afraid to rotate players. Perhaps he made too many changes in the defeat to Alaves, but he had games like Atletico in mind, when he wants his strongest squad available.
Barca’s best side looks like goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, a defence of Sergi Roberto, Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti and Jordi Alba; a midfield three of Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic; and the famed front trio of Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi.
The changes from last season are that Roberto has established himself at right-back after Daniel Alves moved to Juventus.
Javier Mascherano almost joined him in Turin, but stayed at Barcelona where he is now unlikely to start in his side’s biggest games.
The Argentine is a fine player who is popular in the dressing room, but his levels have dropped.
He is a cerebral leader who reads the game well, but new signing Umtiti is stronger and faster and better able to deal with opponents such as Antoine Griezmann, Gareth Bale or Cristiano Ronaldo.
Barca could make further changes in defence. Right-back Aleix Vidal has been left out of the match day squad three times in succession, with the club serious about trying to bring back Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin, who left in 2011, age 16.
Such moves would have to wait until January but for now the focus is Wednesday and containing Griezmann, Atletico’s star player.
The Frenchman scored twice in the opening 31 minutes of the 5-0 win over Sporting Gijon, who were third in the table before the weekend. Griezmann is the league’s joint-leading goalscorer with Ruben Castro, Suarez and Messi.
His goals are important for Atletico, for if there is one criticism of their stellar form of the past five years, it is that they have scored on average 30 fewer goals than Real Madrid and Barcelona – almost a goal per game less.
Diego Simeone appears to have tweaked their tactics this season, adopting a more high pressing and attacking style. With that comes risks, but also better football.
Griezmann was the key protagonist when Atletico knocked holders Barca out of last season’s Champions League, scoring twice on a raucous night in the Vicente Calderon. One was a header. For a player not noted for his height, Griezmann is effective in the air, but Barca need to beware most of all of his pace and skill.
Like Barca’s front three, he is adept at getting the ball in tight situations, turning his marker and running away towards goal.
Atletico’s defence is the best in Spain. They have conceded only one goal in four league matches so far; Barca have let five in. Atletico boasted a similarly tight defence last season, only to concede 50 per cent of their goals in two games against Barcelona in the first five months of the season.
Though they drew at Camp Nou to lift the league title in the final game of the 2013/14 season, Atletico have not won at Barca’s home for a decade when Fernando Torres and Gabi were in the team.
Atletico’s players know that it will be hard to beat Barca at home, but avoiding defeat in both of their games against the Catalans is important if they hope to win the title.
They lost both league games last term. Had they won one, Atletico would have been champions.
Real Madrid have the manager, the players and the work ethic to go all the way
Despite missing Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid look very good.
On Sunday, they made it a club record 16 straight wins with a 2-0 victory at Espanyol, beating a mark set in 1961.
Should they overcome Villarreal at home on Wednesday, they will surpass Barcelona’s 16 game-winning streak under Pep Guardiola in 2010/11.
Barca fans may have scoffed, because Sunday’s success was Madrid’s ninth win from their past 10 trips to Espanyol in all competitions. They have not lost their since October 2007, but the second club of Barcelona played well in the first half.
• No Ronaldo, no Bale, no problem: Real Madrid beat Espanyol to equal Primera Liga win record
• Real Madrid can still use James Rodriguez: Five lessons learnt in Spain
Under Quique Sanchez Flores and new Chinese ownership, they have spent more than usual and increased their wage bill to €70 million (Dh287.5m), though they will be slightly concerned they have not won any of their first four matches.
Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane looked confident after the match. He won the Uefa Champions League in his first season in 2015/16, so that is with good reason.
His team have retained their global superstars but now supplements them with younger home-grown players.
Madrid were long chastised for their lack of home-grown youth products but in Lucas Asensio and the hard-working Lucas Vazquez, Zidane is giving youngsters a chance.
They were notably quieter than usual in the summer transfer market, too. Club president Florentino Perez, a man who has long had an influence in team selection, may have finally realised that his manager knows more about football than him and appears to have allowed Zidane to control things.
Experienced hands are still key. Toni Kroos came on as a substitute for Casemiro with the score still goalless against Espanyol. The German holding midfielder was sublime, spraying cross-field passes with such accuracy that he stretched the Espanyol defence, which led to the opening goal.
Isco also came off the bench and performed well, while James Rodriguez, who has been kept out of the side by Vasquez, was on target.
The last eleven Madrid goals have been scored by eleven different players. Madrid’s team spirit is high, with an unmatched work ethic. Luca Modric has become a vital player, pressing and leading his side forward. At the other end, Catalan goalkeeper Kiko Casilla has excelled in the absence of Keylor Navas. Casilla was exceptional for Espanyol and got into the Spain national team before going back to Madrid, where he came through their youth system, as a second-choice goalkeeper.
Madrid are top of the league, a league they have won only once in the last eight seasons. Barca have won six and Atletico Madrid one in that time.
It is early days and Barcelona and Atletico will again provide stern opposition, but Madrid are in a great place right now.
Player of the week
Villarreal forward Nicola Sansone scored the goal of the week, from just over the halfway line, against Real Sociedad. Veteran Basque striker Aritz Aduriz, 35, bagged both Athletic Bilbao’s goals in their 2-1 win over Valencia. He has now scored in each of the last 12 Primera Liga seasons, 132 goals in total.
Game of the week
Barcelona v Atletico Madrid on Wednesday is the standout match. Real Madrid have a tough test at home to unbeaten Villarreal as well. Looking forward to the weekend, Las Palmas v Real Madrid is the main game, third v first. There is also a Basque derby between Eibar and Real Sociedad.
• Valencia suffered a fourth straight defeat and sit bottom of the table after losing at Athletic Bilbao. It is the worst start since the 1999/2000 season and fans are already asking for a new manager to replace Pako Ayesteran, with Manuel Pellegrini the favourite among them. In that 1999/2000 season, Valencia ended up reaching the first of two consecutive Champions League finals. On their form so far, there is little optimism that they could end this season so strongly.
• Eibar won with 10 men in Week 3. This weekend, they were down to nine but still managed a draw against Sevilla. The league’s smallest club are seventh and have only lost once.
• Up at Eibar, Sevilla became the first Primera Liga team to field a side with no Spanish players. Instead, four Argentines and three French players started alongside those from Italy, Portugal, Japan and Brazil.
Follow us on Twitter @NatSportUAE
Like us on Facebook at facebook.com/TheNationalSport
Published: September 20, 2016 04:00 AM