Venue: Vicente Calderon, Madrid
At the time of writing Real Madrid and Espanyol are yet to get down to exchanging posies on the field. It is quite likely though that Barca will start the game at the Vicente Calderon with just 4 points separating them and Madrid.
With time whittling down and challenges getting harder Guardiola is left with little opportunity to experiment with different tactics or formations. After 2 years without a title this should very much have been a year of painful rebuilding for Pep. However the incandescent form of the team more than halfway through the season has resulted in heightened expectations.
The measure of the team will be judged by its success in the league and hence every league match especially now with the closing down of the gap assumes vital importance. The Copa that might have initially been seen as an insurance or secondary target is within touching distance and not worth sacrificing at this stage. The Champions League may not have been considered a realistic target for this season initially but is far too prestigious a competition to be treated lightly. The three together seem a burdensome load weighing heavily over the team.
In view of this, it is interesting to review the one offensive tactical variation that Pep has used most frequently and with partial success: The rotation of the 3 strikers. Among Henry, Eto’o and Messi, the last is the only left-footed player. It is to be noted that on most occasions Messi is shifted to the center and one of Eto’o or Henry move to the right flank. When Messi starts on the right and with the ball at his feet, cuts across to the left he invariably has to take on about 4-5 defenders including the LM, LB, one or both of the defensive midfielders and at least one of the center backs.
When Messi switches with Eto’o, the latter being right footed prefers to go outside his man on the right. This spreads the defense to the right. Also with Messi moving to the center, hanging close to the center-backs the defensive midfielders can no longer cover him unless they want to stand on the toes of the center-backs. If he now receives the ball the only defenders he has to beat are the center-backs. Hence perhaps Guardiola’s frequent directions to Eto’o to move to the flanks.
There is perhaps also an added psychological advantage in that this causes the center-backs to push up to try and reduce the space between them and the midfield thus increasing the space between them and the Goalkeeper which Xavi can then exploit with a deftly placed through ball.
In the first leg of this encounter back in the Nou Camp, while still in the early stages of the season, little of this was brought into play as Barca took a 5-1 lead 28 mins into the match, which finished 6-1. Atletico then, were strangely lacking in cohesion at the back but things might be different this time around at the Vicente Calderon.
Since they returned to La Liga in 2002, Barcelona have only managed 1 win against Atletico in 6 matches at the Calderon. The Rojiblancos though, have managed to only win once this year, the victory coming in Abel Resino’s first game in charge against Recreativo. The results in the other 3 matches since Aguirre got the sack are 2 draws against Getafe and Porto and 1 loss last weekend to Sevilla. A team with some big names but woefully short on confidence they present the perfect opportunity for Barca to get back into their winning stride.
With Pique out suspended it will be up to Marquez and Puyol to stop the pair of Kun Aguero and Forlan from indulging in any cradle-rocking goal celebrations they have planned. Alves’ performance against Lyon was rather subdued but his defensive contribution was still noteworthy. This time, though he will have more opportunities to go forward, Simao will test his speed tracking back.
The left side poses some interesting questions for Guardiola. With Keita out and the mid-week game against Mallorca coming up he will be tempted to start only one of Toure and Busquets who will have to cover the dangerous Maxi Rodriguez. He will still need to cover for a switch of flank by Simao or a fast break along the left flank. For this he could use one of two combinations pairing either Sylvinho and Victor Sanchez in left back and left midfield positions or Caceres and Gudjohnsen similarly. Sylvinho being a regular in the Copa side the Caceres-Gudjohnsen option might take the starting spots tomorrow.
Hopefully, Iniesta will be back mid-week to take over from Xavi who will again be Barca’s creative engine tomorrow night. Atletico will probably opt for the more physical Raul Garcia to partner Assuncao and keep Xavi in check. Of Barca’s front three at least one should be kept in reserve on the bench for the Copa game.
Though Pedro has been called up he might not start immediately after such a long period away from the first team. Bojan and Hleb are the other candidates to replace Eto’o, Henry or Messi. My guess is it will be either Messi because of his black eye or Henry who will take the bench and Hleb will start on the corresponding wing.
I watched only the highlights of the Atletico-Porto game but in those I was struck by how lazily Seitaridis seemed to be strolling around the pitch. With Perea out injured, Heitinga is the only other option Resino has on the bench. Ibanez and Ulfalusi will be the center backs pairing while Antonio Lopez takes the left back spot, the aging Pernia out suspended.
Guardiola, in the lead up to the match, has indicated his faith in his squad probably with Victor Valdes on his mind. He has also said that stopping the flow of the game is a tactic Barca will have to deal with. Perhaps we could do with a little help from the referee too. Atletico are not a side with the defensive qualities to deem sitting back and soaking up pressure a viable option. Though they will try to keep Barca at bay early on sooner or later they will have to step out and attack. Some patience and denial of the insecurity that has assailed Barca at the failure to take an early lead will help us get back to our winning ways.
Prediction : Atletico 1 – 3 Barcelona
Sunday, 1 March 2009
Venue: Vicente Calderon, Madrid