KATHMANDU, March 4: Barca continues its title aspirations against the second-placed Atletico Madrid on Sunday in a match which can prove to be the La Liga title decider of the season.
Barcelona, fresh from a 1-1 away draw in Las Palmas on Friday, is just five points above Atletico, and the game can either take the Catalan team to eight points or can decrease the lead by just two points with 11 games still to play for.
Barcelona has drawn three of its last five league matches this season, and the Atletico game will help the Catalan team decide the fate of its season with tough games for both the teams near the horizon.
The Las Palmas game was pretty dull as far as the Barcelona performance was concerned. Barca had fewer shots than Leganes with just 10 throughout the match, while the home team had 12. Well, it had a superior ball possession, just like against Chelsea, but the attacking performance was something to be taken a glimpse of. Throughout the match, Barca had just four shots on target, among which was a Messi freekick goal in the 21st minute. Las Palmas equalized just three minutes into the second half through a controversial Jonathan Callieri penalty, but Barca simply failed to provide oath behind its superb 6-1 win over Girona on February 25.
Barcelona rested Ivan Rakitic, Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele for Paulinho, aging Andres Iniesta and Aleix Vidal, who is likely to leave the club in summer, respectively, and the experiment backfired as Barca failed to create chances from the width play and badly missed Coutinho and Dembele.
Vidal and Paulinho were simply worthless in that game. Vidal had a part in 57 minutes of the play and had no shots with a pass success of 57%. He just had 26 passes in the match and only 17 out of them were accurate. With just a key pass in the game, he had a cross, a long ball and just 26 touches on the ball. Utterly poor performance. Paulinho was even poor despite the pass success of 84%. He didn’t have a single shot on goal and had only 16 accurate passes out of the total 19 he passed. He had a poor performance with the ball and contributed in only 24 touches for Barcelona.
Now, the all-important match comes exactly in the right moment and the right time to test Barca boss Ernesto Valverde’s tactical superiority over the rest of the Spanish team. And, with 20 wins out of 26, everyone expects him to come on top of Diego Simeone.
Barcelona will still be without its right-back Nelson Semedo who is currently out of contention from a hamstring injury and will only return in late March.
So, Barcelona will most likely start with Marc-Andre ter Stegen between the sticks, while the backline will be comprised of Sergi Roberto in the right-back role, Samuel Umtiti, and Gerard Pique, who was rested against Las Palmas, in the center back positions, and Jordi Alba in the left side of the defensive line. Alba was suspended for that game after getting the maximum card limit.
The midfield lineup would include Sergio Busquets in the middle of the park, with Rakitic, who came in the 63rd minute for Paulinho in the last game and accompanied by either Iniesta or Coutinho in the left, and Dembele in the right. Coutinho might start the game as he was rested for the first 57 minutes of the match.
Luis Suarez and Messi will surely start this game and the duo would hope to add more to their goalscoring tallies.
Atletico’s left-back Lucas Hernandez and center-back Stefan Savic are doubtful for the match as they are both out with thigh injuries.
So, Atleti might start with Jan Oblak in goal with two Uruguayans Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez in the center-back roles, while Juanfran and Filipe Luis in the full-back roles might as well start against Barcelona.
Atleti might start with Angel Correa in the right. Thomas in the center of the park accompanied by Koke, while Gabi can also play in the center, with Koke starting from the right.
The front line will surely be the same with Antoine Griezmann and Diego Costa up front.
Barcelona and Atletico have played each other 57 times in the past, with the Catalan team emerging victorious on 28 occasions, while Atletico winning 15 times. The 14 games they played have ended in draws.
In the last seven meetings between these sides, Barcelona has won three times and three matches have ended in draws, with Atletico winning on just one occasion.
In the Champions League quarterfinals of the 2015-16 season, Barca had defeated Atleti 2-1 in the first leg at home, but lost 2-0 away in the second leg and crashed out of the tournament.
In the 2016-17 Copa del Rey semi-finals, Barca beat Atleti 1-2 in Madrid and drew 1-1 at the Camp Nou which saw them won the 29th CDR title with a 3-1 win against Alaves in the final.
In the 2016-17 La Liga season, Barca and Atleti drew 1-1 at the Camp Nou in September, and Barca won the corresponding fixture 1-2 in February.
In the 2017-18 La Liga season, both the teams played a 1-1 draw at the new Wanda Metropolitano Stadium.
The last time Barcelona was defeated by Atleti at the Camp Nou was on February 5, 2006, with a 1-3 win.
Despite the superiority in the head-to-head department, Barcelona is miles behind Atleti as far as the recent form is concerned.
The last time Atletico dropped points was against Girona in which the Catalan team stopped the Madrid side 1-1 at the Wanda which was on January 20. Since then, Atleti has won eight matches in the league and in the Europa League and has lost only once which was in the CDR against Sevilla on January 24.
Barcelona might have something more to offer this time, with Messi and Suarez expected to hit the top gear and the duo’s combined 43 goals in the league this season would terrify the away team. Griezmann has scored 15 league goals this season, out of which the seven came in the last two league games. Staggering contest up front. They are also the least goals conceding teams in the league as Barca has conceded 13, and Atletico has only conceded 11 so far.