Hard to separate Atletico, Barca in a big night at the Vicente Calderon
MADRID — Barcelona’s talented attackers and big game experience square up against Atletico Madrid’s impregnable defense and booming confidence in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal second leg at the Estadio Vicente Calderon (live, Wednesday, FOX Sports 2, 2 p.m. ET).
Atletico may be a fresh face at this stage of Europe’s top club competition, but it showed its mettle in last Tuesday’s first leg at Barca’s Camp Nou, hitting the front through Diego Ribas’ spectacular long range strike, and holding out for a more than creditable 1-1 draw after Neymar equalized late on.
That result meant all four meetings between the sides so far this season — across three competitions — have finished even. But Atletico’s away goal means another scoreless draw will see it through to the semifinals. Atletico’s ultra-organized back-line has also been the best in the competition so far, managing to keep even Lionel Messi scoreless the last five times they have met. So it was no surprise to hear Xavi Hernandez say his side would be making a big effort to score first at the Calderon.
“The 1-1 draw is not such a good result for us,” Xavi said. “We are a team made to attack and score goals, and are up against a team which is just the opposite. We must try and get ahead on the scoreboard. We have not done that in any of the four games. We would see then how they react. That could be key to the game.”
Atletico’s main concern pre-game is to get top scorer Diego Costa (33 goals in all competitions already this season) back fit for the game. Costa picked up a thigh strain early in last week’s first leg, and missed Saturday’s 1-0 La Liga win over Villarreal. His coach Diego Simeone told Tuesday’s official UEFA press conference that there was real chance the Brazil-born Spanish international would not play.
“Costa was able to jog yesterday,” Simeone said. “I hope he is fit to play. We will see after today’s training session. He could miss out completely. No matter who the player is, he must be at 90 per cent [fit] to play.”
The Argentine coach surprisingly then suggested that little-used Adrian Lopez, who has not scored since November, could take Costa’s place alongside David Villa in attack. Assuming Simeone was not being deliberately misleading, this means Raul Garcia is needed in midfield to fill in for Turkish playmaker Arda Turan, who has a groin problem.
Barca has fitness issues as well. Gerard Pique is certainly out after fracturing a hip during last week’s clash at the Camp Nou, and first choice goalkeeper Victor Valdes is unavailable with torn knee ligaments. Marc Bartra, 23, and Jose Pinto, 38, are at opposite ends of their careers, but both are set to start the biggest game of their lives.
Further forward Gerardo Martino looks set to keep faith with an off-form Cesc Fabregas in midfield, while talismanic attacker Messi looks in his best nick of the season so far, with 10 goals in his last six games.
Ahead of what will be his 500th game in a blaugrana shirt midfielder Andres Iniesta this week dismissed the idea that a hungrier Atletico might take advantage of a Barca side which has yet again been hit by off-field issues: FIFA imposed a year-long transfer ban relating to the signing of under-age players, which the club is bitterly contesting.
“This is a game of the highest demands,” Iniesta said. “Each player must be ready to give everything. Barca has players of the highest level. Each year we keep winning things. And we must keep doing that.”
Atletico have seen less of the biggest stage in recent years, but its Calderon will be a 55,000 cauldron for the game. Older Colchoneros fans were reminiscing this week about famous nights at the old ground in the 1970s, and wins against Glasgow Celtic [2-0], Cagliari [3-0] and Independiente of Argentina [2-0].
With Atletico also chasing the La Liga title, this could turn into the best season in the club’s 111-year history, and homegrown Colchoneros midfielder Koke, 22, has admitted that the players know they are on the cusp of something special.
“Sometimes when you are at home you stop to think and you say — ‘we are doing something big here’,” Koke said. “We are not feeling any vertigo. We know it is not over yet. We must keep along this line. This team is doing something incredible.”
Atletico’s push for greatness shows no signs of slowing, but Barca — as they have shown recently at Real Madrid and Manchester City — remain capable of big performances when the pressure is really on.
This really does look too tight to call, and another 1-1 draw, extra-time, and penalties is very possible. A huge night at the Calderon awaits.