MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) tackles the Champions League quarter-final first leg tie between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid from the Camp Nou on Tuesday night.
Barcelona v Atletico Madrid | Tuesday 19.45 | BT Sport Europe
There were grumbles of discontent in Catalonia when the Champions League draw was made. Barcelona were far from fearful of Atletico Madrid but the club are well aware there are easier quarter-final assignments across the continent.
The Blaugrana’s quest for back-to-back trebles was never going to be a comfortable task to complete but Tuesday’s first leg test from the Camp Nou at least gives Luis Enrique’s troops a chance to bite back after their Clasico disappointment on Saturday night.
Barcelona saw their record 39-match unbeaten (W32-D7-L0) streak since October ended by bitter rivals Real Madrid as they suffered a first home reverse since February 2015. The white side of the capital celebrated the success vociferously back in Madrid but Barca knew there were more important matters at hand.
The Catalans were flat at the weekend – arguably due to their three stars have been involved in World Cup qualifiers and returning only 48 hours before kick-off – and struggled to contain an energetic Real outfit.
Real were happy to cede possession to Barca, happy to sit deep and happy to play on the break. Gareth Bale hurdle long throws into the box and plenty of crosses were sent in from wide areas – it was as if Los Blancos had been watching Atletico’s blueprint, following it play-by-play.
Anyhow, I’m more than certain Barcelona had one eye on this encounter as they make a ninth successive last-eight appearance, chasing an eight semi-final spot in nine seasons –a remarkable record.
Having W17-D2-L2 in their last 21 Champions League outings – scoring in all 21 – and triumphing in all 10 Camp Nou games at this level under Luis Enrique, it’s understandable to see the Catalans quoted at 8/15 (Boylesports) to take first leg honours.
Since 2013/14, Barcelona have landed a first leg success in five of their six ties with four of those victories by at least a two-goal margin. But Atletico Madrid are the only side to stop the European champions from winning in their last 15 Camp Nou contests in the Champions League.
Sure, Barcelona have a stellar recent record against Atleti – winning each of the last six head-to-heads – but the most recent five clashes saw the Catalans squeak a one-goal margin success and in four of those fixtures they conceded to the Madrid club. Further back, only one of the last 13 meetings saw Barca triumph by two goals or more – they’ve been far from dominant.
Los Colchoneros played superbly when ultimately losing 2-1 with nine men in the La Liga duel earlier this season and of course, Diego Simeone’s side stunned the Blaugrana 2-1 on aggregate in the quarter-finals in 2014. They have form.
Nobody relishes playing Atletico; Los Rojiblancos boast Europe’s best defence and although Jose Gimenez is a confirmed absentee, Diego Godin’s return to fitness is a huge boost for the visitors – without the stalwart Uruguayan, Atleti have leaked in six of seven La Liga matches since the start of last season.
But Godin plays and Simeone’s charges will be hunting a 14th Champions League shutout in 18 outings. Goalkeeper Jan Oblak has conceded only four goals in 11 Champions League games since 2015 and Atletico’s ability to keep things tight, play at great intensity and excel when having little other option but to play on the counter suits them to a tee.
Notorious set-piece merchants, Atleti will try and expose the lack of height in the Barcelona backline, attack their vulnerability when possession is turned over and add that bump and spice to the occasion with a physical and often on-the-line approach to stopping the Barca juggernaut.
The capital club have failed to net in 453 minutes of Champions League knockout football and recorded two 0-0s against PSV Eindhoven in the last-16. But since February, the visitors have been scoring regularly, Antoine Griezmann is in the form of his life and winger Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco is expected to return.
Should Los Colchoneros follow Real’s plan to eliminate space on the flanks, the away side could easily sneak something here but keeping a clean sheet will require a monumental effort against the likes of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar – scorers of 42 of Barca’s last 51 Champions League goals (82%).
The superstar trident have notched 11 of the Catalans’ 12 goals against Atletico since the start of last season and I reckon Barcelona may just have enough X-Factor to sneak a first leg success in a showdown that might well go against the grain on the goals front.
Of Barcelona’s last 14 home Champions League victories, 11 featured three or more goals as they conceded on eight occasions. Luis Enrique’s hosts have kept only three clean sheets in 12 matches now, as well as only two in eight at the Camp Nou with each of the past 23 fixtures in Barcelona breaking the Over 2.5 Goals barrier.
So with Atletico netting in five of their most recent seven trips to Barcelona and losing both La Liga meetings 2-1 this season, a repeat scenario seems entirely viable on Tuesday night. Therefore, I’ll back Barcelona to win by exactly one goal at 5/2 (Skybet) as well as a wee interest in Barcelona to win and Both Teams To Score (3/1 William Hill).
Barcelona v Atletico Madrid – Barcelona to win by 1 goal (5/2 Skybet)
Barcelona v Atletico Madrid – Barcelona to win and Both Teams To Score (3/1 William Hill)
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