Cards on the table: If Barça advances against Atleti in the Champions League quarterfinal tie, barring a serious injury to a key player, they will win the tournament.
Some would even suggest that this slugfest is of a quality that will be superior to the actual CL final. The first match had everything, from an away goal to the scorer having what can best be described as a moment, to magic as a team managed to waste almost 32 minutes of a 90-minute football match, via high-level arsery. Barça’s strengths are Atleti’s weaknesses and vice versa. Some even suggest that this matchup is the new Classic, as the rivalry against Real Madrid has been diminished by dimwitted purchasing decisions and a coaching merry go round.
Denizens of this space recall that in the first leg preview, the prediction was 2-1, 1-1, and another Barça semi-final berth against someone or other. Nothing has happened to alter that prediction, even as things have happened to advance it. Let’s look at those.
— Torres is suspended. The principal Barça tormentor for Atleti will be watching from the stands, and this culer couldn’t be happier about that. Torres, even in his diminished state, always seems to have something for Barça. He scored the goal, and set up Griezmann for what, with a lesser keeper, would have been a second away goal for Atleti. His presence creates chaos in a way that no other attacker for Atleti can offer, so his stupidity is Barça’s gain. Without Torres to provide the foil and aggressor role, Griezmann can be managed as he becomes almost rootless, this thing that flits from branch to branch, looking for something good.
— Messi was the stank against La Real. It has been four matches since he has had a goal or an assist. It won’t be five. There has been lots of talk about Messi being in a slump. Hogwash. Messi is in a lot of things, including a fitness trough. He’s tired. But his standard is high. So exceptionally high that if a normal player had the match that he had against La Real, we would still be buzzing about it, even without the chances having gone into the back of the net. Messi has a higher standard, but he also has a higher personal standard. He wants to help his team, needs to help his team. He will be on today, and will make a difference in the match.
Atleti don’t score a lot of goals. The odds that trend will change today verge on the infinitesimal, even as they will be able to play a tight match thanks to the away goal that means they can advance with a 1-0 win. That isn’t likely. La Real kept Barça from scoring, lord knows how, as chance after chance was left wanting. Many believe that if Suarez had been playing, Barça would have won. His presence is a key aspect to the attack, a random chaos generator that never stops moving. It’s as impressive as it is constantly dangerous. And it doesn’t even matter if Suarez has been crap for the whole match. If Atleti manage to keep Barça from scoring, it will take a collective effort that will make it unlikely that they will score, either. 0-0 works for Barça.
Now, about that Champions League prediction …
If Barça advance, without knowing the outcome of the other match today, with Benfica at home against Bayern, neither RM nor City should worry a culer. Only people who don’t understand what is going on would say that RM’s form is good. They mounted a comeback against a Wolfburg team that really had no business in the CL quarterfinals, and played like it. More telling is the ghost-walking match control that Barça showed off against RM in the home Classic, control that would have been good enough for a 1-0 win except for a couple of Alba moments. Full-speed Barça is better represented by the 4-goal Bernabeu win. City is a mess.
Should Bayern advance (and should) it is an impressive side. But they are going to play football against Barça, and nobody is going to win playing football against Barça. It’s why Atleti is so formidable an opponent. That team and its coach understand that unless you play a perfect match and catch Barça on a crap day, you aren’t going to beat them straight up. So you kick, grab, foul and waste time, reducing the match to flow-free chunklets. Then you have a chance. Bayern is the second-best football team in the world right now, behind Barça. It would make for a brilliant final, even as they would have a better chance over two legs than one.
This makes today, in effect, a match that is for all the marbles. Should you be worried about it? No, for the reasons made clear above. If you want to worry, fret about whether Jordi Alba will melt down, or what kind of hair Alves or Neymar will sport for the match. Is the outcome in the bag? No, but football is usually easy to predict, particularly with high-stakes matches. There would be more concern with Torres in the lineup, or if the tie was 1-1 on aggregate. But at some point, Atleti will have to chase a goal, particularly as they don’t attack enough to force a high number of set pieces from Barça, a team that has also repaired its vulnerability against set pieces.
Now let’s do this.