Liga Preview: Atletico Madrid – Barça, Sunday 3pmEST, ESPN Deportes/ESPN360
We’re invading Madrid again. It’s been a while. Last time we came out 2-0 winners and before that, I’m sure there was something else that happened in the capital that was memorable. I don’t know what it was. No clue whatsoever. This time, though, we’re going in with a makeshift defense that is one part injured and one part suspended. And like three parts baby canteranos. Whatever. We beat Manchester United with a makeshift back line and we can beat an on-again off-again Atleti with a makeshift back line.
Still, missing Pique and Marquez (suspension) and Abidal, Alves, and Chygrynskiy (injury) and with Puyol still not 100% (though back to working out with the squad), we’re facing up against Kun Aguero and Diego Forlan with, um, Gabi Milito? Really? That guy is still around? And maybe Marc Muniesa, or Marc Bartra? Maxwell on the left, Puyol on the right? Puyol in the center and Maxwell on the right? Keita on the left? What the hell is going on? Last week we had too many defenders and now we don’t have enough?
When we played Atleti the first time, at the Camp Nou, our starting lineup was: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Chygrynskiy, Maxwell, Keita, Busi, Xavi, Messi, Henry, Ibrahimovic and our subs were Iniesta, Marquez, Pedro!. The italicized players are ones who are definitely out for this upcoming fixture. Sure, we torched them 5-2, but they scored twice on us in our own home (Aguero and Forlan), which doesn’t necessarily bode well for us going into their house with a weakened back line.
The good thing, though, is that they’re inconsistent and have all-around crappy defending regardless of whether or not they’re on their game. They have 3 clean sheets this year–Espanyol, @Xerez, and @Valladolid–but have been blanked themselves 5 times. Barça has 12 clean sheets and has been kept off the scoreboard just once (0-0 @Valencia). The most prolific offense in the league (52 goals for) and the best defense (11 goals conceded) against a completely middle-of-the-table club who have scored more than a third of their total goals in just three of their matches (Espanyol, Valladolid, and Sporting Gijon) but have failed to score twice against the likes of Malaga. Yet they’ve also given Real Madrid a run for their money (2-3), beaten Sevilla (2-1), and drawn away to Valencia (1-1). They’re also now in the Copa del Rey final thanks to an abysmal performance against Recreativo Huelva in the away leg (3-0) and then a classic remontada in the return leg (5-1) that saw them through. Then they squeaked by Celta Vigo, of all teams, and faced Racing Santander who they stomped 4-0 at the Vicente Calderon, drew in the league on the weekend, and then lost to 3-2 in Santander to qualify on aggregate.
What to make of a team that has allowed 3 more goals than it has scored, but whose top two scorers (Forlan and Aguero, not surprisingly) have accounted for more than half of their total goals (17 of 31)? Messi alone has 16. Add in Ibrahimovic (11) and Pedro! (6) and Barça’s potential starting forward line has more goals as their entire team. Their league run of form looks like this: LDLDDWLDLLLWWLDWWWLLD. That’s worth 24 points, less than half of what Barça has earned (55) and less than what Barça has earned exclusively in away matches. And yet.
I picked Atleti to finish 4th this year in my preseason poll. Pythagorean Expectation thinks they should be earning almost 10% more points than they are, meaning they should have 29 or 30 points instead of 24 points. They have Kun Aguero, Diego Forlan, Sergio Asenjo, Simao, Paolo Assuncao, JA Reyes, and a couple of other noteworthy players. And yet.
Who can put a finger on them? Who can guess what their next match will be like? They led 1-2 against Racing Santander and allowed 2 goals in the final three minutes. They were in the relegation zone for a while and are only six points away from there now, they lost Maxi Rodriguez to Liverpool on a free, they were drawing scarcely fifteen thousand fans to home matches in a stadium that holds more than fifty thousand. And yet.
So, our squad: Valdés, Pinto, Bartra, Muniesa, Maxwell, Puyol, Milito, Keita, Xavi, Iniesta, Busi, JDS, Ibrahimovic, Pedro!, Bojan, Jeffren, Messi, and Henry. That’s nothing to sneeze at even if we’re missing some world-class talent.
This is their squad: Asenjo, De Gea, Valera, López, Juanito, Ujfalusi, Domínguez, Perea, Tiago, Raúl García, Jurado, Assunção, Reyes, Simão, Rubén Pérez, Forlán, Agüero, Ibrahima.
So what kind of a match will we see? I’m thinking up-tempo, lots of attacking, some goals, a bunch of shots on goal, some yellow cards, and a crazy final few minutes as both teams push themselves to the limits. Still, we’ll come out of this with 3 points because Messi is absolutely on fire (he got better!?) and simply will not let us lose or even draw. This match is going to be killer.
Predicted lineup: Valdés, Bartra, Puyol, Milito, Maxwell, Busi, Xavi, Keita, Iniesta, Ibra, Messi. We’re looking for some possession-based play rather than more attacking forms (ie Iniesta in mid with Henry up front), so I’m expecting that we’ll play a bit more of a 4-4-2-esque formation, which seems to be how we roll when Iniesta is on the left wing and constantly dropping back to play around with Keita and Xavi in his preferred position.
Official prediction: 4-2, goals by Ibra, Messi (2), and Bojan (sub). We’re awesome, simply put.
Time: 9pm local/Madrid time, 3pm EST/New York, check your local time here.
Weather: ~36F (2C) clear and cold. That’s not good for us, but it’s not good for Atleti either, so I don’t consider it a big factor.
TV: In the US, it’s on ESPN Deportes and ESPN360. Sorry, but ESPN is showing bowling and ESPN2 is showing Women’s College Basketball instead of La Liga. Bowling? No wonder ESPN’s coverage has gotten such a bad rap. Bowling.