MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) nailed Tuesday night’s Champions League match in Madrid. Can he repeat the feat on Wednesday when Atletico host Barcelona?
Atletico Madrid v Barcelona | Wednesday 19.45 | BT Sport Europe
Are Barcelona in crisis?
Taking a point from their past three La Liga games and losing back-to-back league fixtures for the first time since November 2014 suggests so. Include last Tuesday’s scratchy but absorbing first leg Champions League success over Atletico Madrid and understandably, there are questions to answer.
But take a step back for a second and ponder this – has a side ever been in a better position to repeat a historic treble than the Bluagrana right now? No.
The Catalans have already booked a Copa del Rey final place, lead La Liga by three points with a superior head-to-head record over their rivals and do take a 2-1 advantage to the Vicente Calderon on Wednesday. Steady on with ‘crisis’ talk.
Barcelona are bidding to become the first back-to-back winners of the Champions League in 26 years and having claimed four titles in Europe’s premier club competition across the past 10 seasons, reaching the semi-final stage ins seven of the past eight campaigns, are rightly strong favourites to clinch their final four place.
But the aura of invincibility that had surrounded Luis Enrique’s group as recently as 10 days has begun to waver, if only slightly.
Barca have been a little frayed and low on energy in recent weeks. Passes have been missed, possession has been gifted and chances have been scorned. It’s been a while since the side were at their consistent brilliant best, even in victory.
The Catalans were on the rocks in the Camp Nou before Fernando Torres’ naïve sending off, as the first leg meeting followed an almost carbon-copy of the two La Liga contests this term – Atletico beginning the better and grabbing the first goal before losing their heads and seeing a player sent off, allowing Barca to come from behind and pinch two match winning goals.
The stats showed the Blaugrana fired in 15 of their 21 shots in the second 45 minutes as they made their man advantage count in another bad-tempered clash – 10 cards were flashed, meaning the past seven meetings have produced an astonishing 51 yellows and five reds.
Last week’s epic encounter was played at a frantic pace, full of commitment, drama, edge, skill and passion. In the cacophonous capital atmosphere of the Calderon here, I’d expect nothing less when they go toe-to-toe once more.
Atletico know what’s required. In the duos one and only previous European encounter, Los Colchoneros sneaked a second leg 1-0 win on home soil to seal a 2-1 aggregate victory at the quarter-final stage in 2014. It was the last time that Barcelona failed to score in Europe’s premier club competition.
The capital club failed to land an attempt on-target following Torres’ sending off last week and it’s true too, no side still in the competition has scored as few goals this season as Atletico’s 12 in nine games. But the hosts have hit a rich vein of form in front of goal recently, notching 11 in their previous four Calderon outings, and only firing blanks in three home fixtures all season.
The away goal is a major boost to the typically tenacious side and although Diego Simeone’s side have pocketed just one success in 19 against Barcelona, their strong record as hosts should at least give them a fighting chance of triumphing.
Atleti have W11-D3-L1 in their last 15 Champions League games at the Calderon, keeping their sheets clean in 12 of the most recent 14. Go back further and Los Colchoneros have W23-D3-L2 in 28 when entertaining continental clashes. That’s mighty impressive, eh?
Antoine Griezmann and Koke were excellent in Saturday’s 3-1 win against Espanyol and although centre-half Jose Gimenez is out, Lucas Hernandez has proved a solid and able replacement alongside the ever-reliable Diego Godin in defence.
Simeone set up with a bold 4-3-3 in the first leg but is likely to revert to more of a 4-4-2 here with Augusto Fernandez coming into the centre of the park alongside skipper Gabi, Koke and Saul Niguez, allowing Griezmann to operate alongside “false nine” Yannick Carrasco – their pace against Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano could prove pivotal to Atletico’s hopes and dreams.
The four-man midfield will be set-up to destroy and strangle Barcelona’s supply line but the big question remains; can Simeone’s side stop the superstar front three from scoring? And when will Atletico go looking for the required goal?
I expect the hosts to start on the front foot – as they did in the 2014 second leg – and an early goal could throw this tie wide open. Atletico have shipped just seven goals at home in La Liga but have failed to keep their sheets clean across their last four fixtures and so it’s almost impossible to rule out a team led by Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.
The Barcelona trident are responsible for 44 of the Catalans’ 53 Champions League goals since last season (83%) and although Messi has gone 362 minutes without scoring in all competitions (his worst run for Barcelona in five years), could you oppose arguably the planet’s greatest ever player?
The visitors haven’t failed to score in back-to-back games since April 2014, have W18-D2-L2 in Champions League games since the start of 2014/15, scoring in all 22. However, they’ve ‘only’ returned W14-D7-L4 on their travels this term and boast just three shutouts in 11 away days of late.
The stats also suggest this tie is nowhere near over – in 21 previous instances of a Champions League side taking a 2-1 home first leg win away in the knockout stages of the competition, only 11 have completed the job and qualified. And it’s worth noting that Atletico have progressed in five of their last six 2-1 first leg deficits in UEFA competition.
However, Los Colchoneros have faced Barcelona on 30 occasions in two-legged ties and failed to go through in all 13 in which they’ve lost the first meeting. Throw in the fact the hosts have scored more than one goal just once in 19 head-to-heads with the Catalans and lost all seven games against their guests since Luis Enrique arrived on the scene and optimism begins to dissipate.
The past six of those Barca wins were all squeaked out by one-goal margins – all three collisions ending 2-1 this term – but just once in the last 14 showdowns have Barcelona triumphed by two goals or more.
Atletico have scored in eight of their last 10 duels with the Catalans and I do fancy them to grab a goal on Wednesday night. But I just can’t oppose Barcelona scoring, making the logical selection Both Teams To Score at 17/20 (Betfair).
In a contest as tight as this, I’m simply not willing to wager any other selections, preferring to enjoy the thrills and spills that Wednesday night will certainly throw up.
Atletico Madrid v Barcelona – Both Teams To Score (17/20 Betfair)
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