Champions League preview, Barça v Atleti

Killers don’t care.

There is no purer distillation of that simple phrase than the end of the American college basketball championship game on Monday. One team, the favorite, came back from 10 points down to tie the game off an absurd, double-clutch, off-balance 3-point shot. With 4.7 seconds left, the other team had a play. They calmly went the length of the court, and one of their players drained a 3-point shot at the buzzer.

Killers don’t care. Athletes get in the moment, this thing often misnamed “the zone.” It isn’t a zone, but rather a moment that extends into seeming eternity. If you’re a basketball player, the hoop seems the size of a giant garbage pail. If you’re a footballer, you see everything before it happens. It’s a period where senses are heightened and the body functions at a higher level. It’s fascinating to watch.

As Barça lines up against Atleti in the Champions League quarterfinals, there has been a lot of talk before the match about the possibility of the RM loss somehow affecting the team. It won’t, because killers don’t care. Barça understands what happened during that match, those few minutes of lost control. They understand the reality of trying to manage a match with the real objective in mind, and will be ready for that objective. That’s the simple view.

This is a worrisome tie, but not for any residual psychological reasons. Athletes do things that allow them to be ready for anything, living life as a series of moments. The tie is worrisome because Atleti is a team whose strengths match up against the Barça weaknesses. Their press can disrupt the possession game. They can also play off the counter, are strong on the flanks and from set pieces. Any honest culer will admit that this is the one team they didn’t want to see in the competition, particularly as the other three favorites have something of a sashay into the semi-finals.

That Barça is 6-0 against Atleti might be one of the best examples of why Luis Enrique was the exact right coach for this team, at this time. Atleti had its number, because it was built to destroy what Barça does. It’s difficult to play possession football when you’re being punched in the face. And it worked.

But while everyone was talking about a betrayal of Barça principles, and “where’s the midfield,” etc, Luis Enrique was diversifying the way the team could attack, and preparing it for those punches in the face. Atleti set up to truncate and harass. Barça just bypassed the midfield, leaving Atleti swinging at air. That 3-1 Camp Nou victory was a statement of intent — things were different now. Barça was no longer a team handcuffed by its own traditions. Somehow, attacking, possession football became thought of as the deliberate, passing style that many called tika-taka.

This new Barça beat Atleti and won the treble for the same reason that Guardiola’s team did: it had many different ways to attack.

In the here and now, Atleti has also had to adapt. They can still grind out a 1-0 win, but can also score goals, more than they have in the past. It isn’t just the fluency provided in attack by Griezmann. Fernando Torres is scoring goals, the midfield is solid and creative and the team understands how to use the flanks to attack, a potentially devastating outside-in approach to creating scoring chances.

And yet because Atleti is also such a danger off the counter, possession will be crucial for Barça. Atleti punishes mistakes with a regularity that verges on inevitable. Make the same errors in possession that turned the tide in the Classic, and Barça could quite easily find itself heading to the Calderon with an away goals deficit. That 6-0 record is as meaningless as the result of the Classic. It’s already forgotten by both sides.

Fatigue won’t be an issue, either. Focus is. Barça lost focus for about 10 minutes against Real Madrid, and that period was crucial. Lose focus against Atleti, and problems will result. But the team won’t, because it has always understood the important moment. The Classic meant a lot more to the supporters and various ancillary types than the players and coaching staff, because of the pragmatism that Luis Enrique has instilled. They knew the situation on Saturday, and they know the situation now.

The other intriguing thing about this match will be the difference wrought by the keeper. Ter Stegen moves Barça up the pitch. The back line has less responsibility to play out of the back because the keeper is making that initial pass. This has the benefit of diluting the Atleti pressure on the players bringing the ball out, and gives the attack a head start farther out from its own area.

Ter Stegen, because of his sweeper keeper style of play, also has the potential to negate one of the big weapons of Atleti, a team that is fond of controlling the space in front of the keeper in attack. They play close to the opponent area. Ter Stegen controls that space with effectiveness, and because he plays out from his goals, the through balls that Atleti can thrive can possibly be cut off at the source. It’s a different way of playing by a keeper that has the potential to provide an advantage against Atleti.

All that said, one thing that Simeone will have learned from watch the Classic is the value of neutralizing Neymar, whose importance to the Barça attack can’t be overstated. The team plays differently when he is on the loose, faster and less predictable. Atleti needs an opponent to be predictable. Messi is like a shark. He is headed for goal. Suarez needs service to be truly effective. How Simeone plays Neymar will be interesting. This is also one point where officiating will matter. If Felix Brych decides to not let Atleti get overly physical with Neymar, they will be in trouble. If he lets aggression go, it could be a difficult day for the left side of the Barça attack.

We don’t yet know who is in the Barça squad for the match, but the hope is that Rafinha makes it. He’s the precise kind of player who, in a substitute role, can unsettle and unbalance. He’s physical, and strong with the ball at his feet. He’s also capable of making runs of a type that moves defenses around.

But even as this match is complex, it is easy to predict. The team that plays its game will win. Duh. But possession will be everything. Barça will want it, Atleti will want to disrupt it and capitalize on any errors. The pressure will be intense. But killers don’t care. The danger is that both sides have killers.

When all is said and done, the lack of consistent scoring will let Atleti down, but the tie will be close, as in squeaky bum close. Key players in the tie will be Pique, Messi, Neymar and Ter Stegen. If those four have a strong match, it could all be over but the shouting.

Fearless prediction: 2-1 and 1-1, for a 3-2 aggregate Barça win. But I could be wrong.

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.


  1. After all the initial sadness of the classico loss, it is a bit too much from the International press to suddenly doubt Barca. Was watching the retelecast of the second leg of Arsenal match in which a commentator is saying, this team looks unstoppable from repeating their CL win. With just a match, now the whole media says Barca is in trouble. Frankly, towards the end of Classico, I too thought so. But now, I think, we are stupid. These players will do everything to keep up with their esteem.
    We should be winning this match, even if it will be tougher than the Classico. Some of our best players had just crossed the Atlantic and also had to fight the body clock, and we expected them to bring in their best in that match, we were stupid. They must have adapted by now and today would be different.
    I simply hope, we wont let Atletico to score today.

  2. Bold prediction kevin. Am also going with your prediction.
    As you mention above ter stegen has a chance today to prove his worth, to show cules why he should be barca’s no.1. Nit only by not conceding (although I don’t want him to) but how he marshal the space in front of him and distribute passes side ways and initiate counter attack with his quick throwing pass (unlike Bravo who sometimes hesitates to throw untill opponents settled). It would be crucial to be quick in transition and don’t hold the ball longer than necessary, iniesta??. I can still remembers messi’s goal in our last encouter with Athletico Madrid when masche passed to neymar who was unmarked and free at the edge of the box then released a short forward pass to the surging alba who crossed it in and messi finished it off. We must mover the ball much faster and run our ass off especially messi, if we truly do This then the tie could end today at the camp nou

  3. .

    Here’s a more fearless prediction.

    Atleti will NOT score a single goal.
    In both ties.

  4. In the classic i saw tired legs more than i saw tired minds, Lack of concentration and slacking off didn’t seem the real problem, It’s that as the time passed by, Their legs felt heavier and heavier, I think we’re starting to see the true toll of competing in three competitions did to them, 52 matches yet and many more to go is absolutely brutal.

    The physical issues we faced can’t disappear within a few days, And i expect to see at least a residual effect of that tonight, But the trick to predicting matches is that you have to predict the performance of your opponent in addition to yours, And assuming atleti bring their A game tonight, I expect a 1-1.

  5. A little off topic, but I am really disappointed to hear that the Messi family is dealing with offshore tax havens. He isn’t alone, but part of the problem of having such a good reputation is that things like this sting even more. If it were Neymar, I’d say it’s just par for the course.

    Sometimes it’s hard to separate certain ethical issues from the sport.

    Anyway, here’s hoping for a good reaction to that somewhat bizarre loss Saturday.

  6. Rafinha on the bench again? Good to see, it’s been so long since I’ve seen him kick a ball for us. I hope he will recover his form and stay with us next season.

    I hope that Kxevin is right about the mentality aspect of this game. I want to believe it, but I also see how highly talented and professional athlethes perform at Chelsea (under Mourinho this season) or RM (under Benitez) and wonder if doubt or lack of motivation doesn’t play a part after all even with these players.

  7. For me, the main question tonight is whether Messi can find that extra gear which he seems to reserve for matches which cement his legacy. It’ll be a packed defence so moving the ball quickly will be essential. We tried at the start of the second half against RM but just couldn’t do it. If we hope to exploit weaknesses tonight that ball has to fizz.

    I remember Andy Murray, early in his career when Mark Petchy his then coach was trying to get him to be more aggressive , saying that. People who don’t play at a high level in sport don’t realise that on any given day you have a limit. You can try to play more aggressively but the mistakes go up exponentially and that he intuitively could tell where his limit was each match. I reckon it’s the same with us. I quite blithely say we need to move the ball more quickly but I reckon this team knows instinctively how far it is able to push it on a given day. Here’s hoping tonight is one of those where we feel the force !

    Equally important is not conceding and we really shouldn’t if the defence keeps its discipline. One FB forward at a time ( I reckon Alba is gonna have to use the space ahead of him when he gets the chance. He has the pace to create spaces. ) , and NO impulsively chasing the ball and leaving gaps !

    Let’s also see if TS can give us an advantage with his distribution. I’m afraid he still makes me nervous which is probably unfair to him but tonight would be a good time to prove me wrong and I hope he does.

    Is this the first game of the season where we’re entitled to feel miserable if we don’t win ? That leads to tension, at least in this house. You have to feel this team is the best around, though, so I’m clinging to that. Come on, Barca !

    1. You have to say that a lot of that goal lays at his feet though, he broke his lines and got no where near Koke.

    2. Not for me, Ciaran. Koke was left in oceans of space. Right in front of our box. Someone has to come out to close down. Should’ve been Busi, should’ve been Masche but neither was moving. Shouldn’t have been a problem other than nobody covers. Look at our left side. What is Masche doing out there and why doesn’t he at least move centrally when Pique has to move out ? The one thing as a CB you don’t allow is a forward running in between the two CBs. He’s not marking anything. You could argue Pique waits and let’s Koke run at him one on one but there’s danger in that.

      What is LE doing allowing Messi to play so deep again ? We have no threat on the right because Alves won’t take on the FB. Stick Messi out there you take two defenders wide. Problem is Rakitic doesn’t look up to creating any threat so far. Still it’s half time. Our shape second half will tell me a lot about LE’s ability as a coach. He doesn’t have a lot of options. If he wants to leave Messi there I’d maybe take a defender off and stick Turan on as RW telling him to run at the FB every opportunity.

  8. We should have expected that, and thats why you f.cking score from the first chance that you got. First Messi and later Ney, especially Ney.
    That was a clean header, you cant not score from there.

    1. You have to try to head it down from that kind of area, the keeper would have had no chance from that distance.

  9. Thats how you play. They couldnt do this from the first minute but had to wait to concede a goal and then wake up.

  10. You have to say that was quite exciting. It’s good to see us pushed so hard and not our best performance but a lot of effort from tired legs. We caught a break with Torres being stupid certainly. And that’s the value of Suarez. He never gives up and will come good after barely touching the ball all first half. Now, four or five rested at the weekend , please.

    Is anyone else scratching their head at how high a line we’re trying to hold at FKs ? I was always taught the line should be where any ball lofted well over the top was the keeper’s. We’re holding it higher and higher and leaving a lot of space for a runner.

  11. That second half was something else. Yes, they were a man down, but the pressure the team applied on Atleti was so immense, even with Messi playing badly and not in the mood at all. Note that in La Liga (I think Champions League as well) no team but Barca has scored two goals in one game against them, just to give some context to the result.

    I also dare anyone to call Busquets or Neymar or anyone from our team play-actors for taking soft fouls after this game. Atleti – though playing well – was pretty disgusting with their play-acting in the second half, cutting our players down when having the opportunity then laying on the ground for minutes at least five times in one half just to run down the clock. They noticed that the referee tended to calling fouls easier than others and acted accordingly. Playtime in the second half probably was something like fifteen minutes total.

    Not the most comfortable of results, but taking into account the team is now 7-0 against Atleti under Enrique I favor our chances of going through at the Calderon.

    1. Hehe, playacting it was. I could see Neymar whispering in Juanfran’s ear: “Now don’t come complaining next time I fall easily…”. It was parodic.

      Now please, please rest Messi. I have never seen him like this. That excellent first touch Wenger was talking about it long gone. It’s like he lacks concentration, bad decision making. Panama docs, anyone? It’s something, but hopefully just fatigue. Happy to see the other two could step up. Maybe they won’t tripple-team Messi next time, then?

      Masch did really well, and Alba raised his game. Alves? Well, two assists will buy him some credit and make us forget a few other moments.

      Good to see Rafinha’s touch. Didn’t do much, and a little rusty, but speedy passing and some good runs.

      Now let’s take it to the Calderon!

  12. Enter Your Comment…should have killed the tie off. Good news is Atletico must be so knackered. If Anoeta was not our graveyard rotation would have been the best option there.

    Smart of LE to take Busi off as they were bent on him receiving another card. Our positioning need some bit of work again. So easy to cut through our midfield. Don’t think it was wise to sub Raktic for a guy who last played in September in a game that was so high octane. Turan would have made a better option warts and all.

    Anyway we move on.

    1. They did try to kill the tie off, but it’s not easy when playing against Atleti with all men behind the ball and falling over to run down the clock every three minutes. I would also give a lot of credit to Atleti for cutting through our midfield with smart passing, they are very very good at not giving up possession in midfield. Maybe it’s better to let them have it for some time and defend deeper instead of trying to press them when we’re not down a goal.

      The Rafinha sub puzzled me as well. Nice gesture, but wrong match. Luckily he did alright though not spectacularly.

  13. The way team played in the second half tells a lot about the coach, as someone said in the comment above – and I guess it did, didn’t it?

    The commentator was saying we threw the kitchen sink at them. It’s a wonder we are only 2-1 up. And boy did the Camp Nou shout! They were the twelfth man for sure today – Poor Athletico probably would have held on against any other team in the world but this was too much.

    So relieved from this result – I was mentally prepared for a 0-2 after the Classico disappointment.

    Talking points for me:
    – Why was Iniesta removed? He is most effective when the opposition is feeling scared – he should have been there (and relieved of defensive work to rest his legs a bit)
    – Did Rafinha play well? I thought he managed well enough – surely LE trusts him more than Sergi Roberto
    – Great move to take off Busquets – I was shit scared of him taking a second yellow and missing the second leg.
    – The goal came because we took advantage of Athletico not defending their wings – Credit to LE. There was no way that nothing would come out of so many balls looping into the box. Alves should get the MOTM, no?
    – For all the criticism of Messi, he was a few inches and a few decent finishes (from Saurez/ Ney) away from deciding the Classico as well as this one. I don’t know whether he doesn’t want to run or just can’t afford to – either ways, it is a way of life for Barca for few years now.
    – Pique was at fault for their goal but I can see his reasoning, Koke would have had a clear shot on goal if he didn’t go and press him. In the hindsight though, wrong call. sMasche was really good.
    – It is surprising that the opposition players invariably get sent off in most of the big games for Barca and invariably off their own fault – must be something to do with the Barca style and fouls it attracts- not many people recognize this advantage of our play.

    1. Just want add that this is a contest worthy of a Champions League Semi-Finals at least. It would be a shame if Barca doesn’t go on to lift the Cup after getting through this in single piece!

  14. Things got better when Ney,Messi and Iniesta stopped dwelling on the ball for too long and it became one touch quick passing combos. That’s just what has been missing in the previous games. Players dwelling on the ball and slowing the game down playing right into the hands of the opponents. I also love the fact that Alves has now improved his crossing and has become a legit threat on that right hand side. Teams can no longer afford to clog the middle and give him space on that right hand side

  15. Barcelona’s attacking trio had an awkward evening. Neymar should have scored with his head, and came close with a couple of right-footers; Suárez should have been sent off, and then scored with a tap-in and a super power header; Messi was fairly peripheral, dropping deep to find space, or running into the box and being crowded out.

Comments are closed.