The season is only a few matches old, yet there’s the unmistakable air of May about it already. It’s not that Real Madrid are 3 points up in the standings because Barça dropped all 3 points in a clanger against Alaves, though they did indeed do just that, but rather that despite Barça wracking up 5 goals in 3 of their 5 matches in all competitions, the team doesn’t look settled. Alaves and Leganes offered up 2 different tests and while Barça ended up passing the latter with flying colors, it wasn’t quite so obvious an outcome for the first few minutes while Leganes huffed and puffed and nearly pulled off an early goal. Alaves, of course, took the lead on 2 separate occasions and always looked good for at least a point in what turned out to be a rather shrug-producing performance by the blaugrana.
It is easy enough to decry the team’s form or to make excuses for it, but it is startlingly clear that the team has yet to find a real rhythm. That is partially because it is early in the season and a with such a large number of new faces, integration was always going to be a bit of a challenge, but it is also because Lucho hasn’t had a sustained run of matches with a fully fit squad to work with. It is also easy to say that Lucho is simply still finding out how to utilize some of his players. What of Aleix Vidal? What of Lucas Digne? Samuel Umtiti is integrating rapidly enough for some fans to call for his coronation as the next great thing, but what of Denis Suarez, Andre Gomes, Paco Alcacer, and Arda Turan? Are we to be so reliant on the trio of MSN for goals that any time they’re missing we’ll be bereft of options? Umtiti can’t very well go up front and knock in goals while also protecting the back line. Wait, can he?
The additions ticked all the right boxes this summer and looked absolutely stunning on paper, but transferring that to the field is not as easy as it is in FIFA—or I’m guessing PES, but really, does anyone actually play PES or do they just tell you they play PES for some weird Internet hipster credit? If it were, everyone would have shelled out insane money for Freddy Adu 15 years ago or whenever it was that your cousin Frank first mentioned him in a late night email chain about some upcoming match on Setanta. “He’s going to be amazing, you guys and don’t worry about adapting to new leagues, this one is Solid Gold Rated(C) according to the Cousin Frank O Meter of Goodness.” Lucho has a middling track record of introducing talent and getting it to mesh with his system: Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic, and Sergi Roberto have all floundered in the deep waters of La Liga under his tutelage, after all.
And now the team faces a stern test: the rageface of Diego Simeone. He does undeniably horrible things to people who do not follow his strict instructions. Just ask his children: don’t click this if you value your eyes. So imagine what he’ll do to opponents. Arda Turan, a level-headed specimen that radiates calmness and an utter disdain for the grittier parts of the game and who has never once been involved in an on-the-the-field incident, was once seen trying to behead an official with footwear. Simeone makes you do crazy stuff. I’m guessing the Ministry of Magic has sent a howler his way a couple of times, but the Howler was shouted down. His teams play with a ferocity that borders on lunacy at times, but like the Mourinho teams of old that were more bite than bark—looking at you Chelsea and Manchester United—their intensity is also their saving grace in the way that the Seattle Seahawks were accused of flooding the market on cheap fouls.
So far, Atleti drew their first two matches, against Alaves and goalless away to Leganes. They then turned around and smashing 4 past Celta Vigo in Galicia and then 5 beyond Sporting Gijon in Madrid while also taking a somewhat fortuitous 0-1 win off of PSV in the Champions League. Griezmann has 4, the same as Suarez and Messi, while new boy Kevin Gameiro has 2. Fernando Torres, who somehow still has legs and is even more shockingly still called El Niño despite being something like 46 years old (note: he’s younger than I am and now I’m crying), also has 2. They’re certainly a dangerous team coming into dangerous form. They have the tools to challenge for the title, but they’ll need to win at the Camp Nou (and later the Bernabeu) to cement that challenge, so they’ll be going out guns blazing. Or shoes blazing, maybe, if that’s still their preferred artillery ammunition.
I highly suspect that it’ll be an exciting game, though it may not be as high scoring as the goal tallies from each team over the last few matches might suggest. Atleti will likely attempt to disrupt the game flow rather than come out to titillate the crowd with extravagant passing, but it should still give us something to enjoy. Since Simeone took over at Atleti, these are the scores in all the matches between Barça and Atleti (@ is at the Calderon, home team listed first):
15/16: @1-2, 2-1 (& 2 red cards for Atleti)
14/15: 3-1 (9 total yellows), @0-1 (8 total yellows)
13/14: 0-0, 1-1 (9 total yellows)
12/13: 4-1, @1-2
11/12: 5-0, @1-2 (11 total yellows)
Note that since Simeone took over, Atleti has never beaten Barça in the league. Yes, in the one match where Barça needed to win—the 2013/14 final match that ended 1-1 and handed Atleti the title—they couldn’t, but they’ve also never lost. And even if you include the Copa del Rey and the Champions league, Atleti has only beaten Barça once in 5 years (it just happened to be in the Champions League semifinal second leg). That’s impressive. At home in the league, Barça has scored 14 in 5 matches and allowed just 3. Again: impressive.
jerk eagle-eyed Josep pointed out that I missed last year’s loss to Atleti in the Champions League, like a total spazzoid, so Barça has lost twice in 5 years to a team that has featured in 2 Champions League finals and won one league. Okay.]
And that is why Simeone brings the fire. If you can’t beat ‘em, fight ‘em harder. And that is why once again, tomorrow, we shall dance the dance of pain and hate, but whatever happens, it should be a good match. With both teams starting to fire on all cylinders, it may very well come down to which team has the brighter start. So let’s keep the viejo Niño out of the net for at least 60 seconds this time, whaddya say?