BARCELONA — Atletico Madrid’s credentials to be seen as one of Europe’s best sides are set to be tested to the maximum in UEFA Champions League quarterfinal first leg at Barcelona’s Camp Nou (live, Tuesday, FOX Sports 2, 2 p.m. ET).
Experienced Barca go into the all-Spanish tie looking to extend its record for successive Champions League semifinals to seven, while emerging Atletico are hoping to make the last four of the competition for the first time since the 1970s.
This gap in historic terms has been narrowed on the home front, with Atletico currently a point ahead at the top of the Primera Division standings. Diego Simeone’s side were hugely impressive in a 2-1 win at fourth placed Athletic Bilbao on Saturday, but Gerardo Martino’s Barcelona remained in second, just a point behind, by nicking a 1-0 win at its city rivals Espanyol the same day.
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These two games again showed the value of each side’s in-form front-man. Lionel Messi, who now looks fully recovered from all injury issues, coolly converted a late penalty for Barca to move to 35 goals in all competitions this season. A few hours later a rampaging Diego Costa scored for Atletico at San Mames to move to 33 in total this season, a tally which includes seven in his first five Champions League games.
Such net-busting has however been missing during the team’s three previous meetings this season. Each game has finished all-square, with only two goals scored in total over 270 minutes of tight, gritty, tactical action. Barca’s playmaker Xavi Hernandez said on Sunday that this kind of familiarity was not always a positive.
"We know each other really well," Xavi said. "Atletico is an opponent who make it uncomfortable for you, who defend and come out on the counter. We do not usually enjoy the games against them. Their strong point is the intensity they bring to every game. Simeone’s winning mentality is so important."
Atletico captain Gabi, on the other hand, maintained that his side had learned lessons and gained confidence from doing well in recent games against Barca, and La Liga’s other giant Real Madrid.
"This team, this group, has hunger to do important things, and we are showing that," Gabi said. "For a few years now we have been playing man to man against Real Madrid and Barcelona. We have this winning mentality, know we are capable of beating anyone. We know [Barcelona] are a good team. But we are not afraid of anyone."
The battle on the bench is also intriguing, with two Argentine coaches renewing a rivalry which dates back to clashes as players two decades ago, most notably a particularly bad-tempered game between Martino’s Newell’s Old Boys and Simeone’s Velez Sarsfield in 1988 when both men were sent off. While they now always talk extra-respectfully of each other public, neither will want to give their fellow countryman an inch on Tuesday.
Simeone’s main selection decision for the game is who to name for suspended Raul Garcia. Diego Ribas and Jose Sosa are options to play another midfielder, while bringing in ex-Barca attacker David Villa — who scored against his old team in Augustâs Supercopa meeting — would involve a tactical reshuffle.
Martino is also expected to pack his midfield, with all of Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Cesc Fabregas starting, and to retain faith in €86million signing Neymar on the right wing. That should mean the same outfield which won 4-3 at Real Madrid ten days ago. Back-up goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto will be between the sticks, as first-choice Victor Valdes had an operation on his knee in Germany on Monday.
Given how tight the first three meetings have been, it is no surprise that Atletico’s young goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois suggested he would be delighted with a first leg draw.
"The games against Barca are always hard, for them too, and the tie will be decided by little details," Courtois said. "If we can get a good result at the Camp Nou, in the return, with the Calderon at its best, I believe we can get something. I believe Barcelona is favorite, but we are going to try and get a good result there."
Meanwhile, the wilier Martino was telling his pre-game press conference that his team’s greater experience — and individual talent — should decide who progresses.
"In the three games [Atletico] has shown it is a very difficult opponent," he said. "The difference now is the stage of the competition. This is a Champions League quarterfinal. The secret of any game against Atletico Madrid is to match its intensity. But our weapon is to be Barcelona."
The blaugrana coach was aiming to heap the pressure on a team not used to this stage of Europe’s top club competition. Now let’s see how they handle it.