Atlético Madrid and Barcelona will meet four times this season, with each match carrying more significance than any in recent memory between the two teams. Tuesday's Champions League quarterfinal first leg is huge, but it's just the second game in a four-game series between the two teams that could eventually culminate in one of them being crowned champion of La Liga, regardless of who gets the better of who in this tie.
Their previous meeting came at the Vicente Calderon, where Atleti earned a 0-0 draw. At that point in the season, no one was sure about Atleti's staying power at the top of the La Liga table. Now that they're heading into April on top of the table, it's clear that they have what it takes to compete with Barca and Real Madrid. That 0-0 draw was very impressive at the time, but at this point in the season, it's looking like a fairly average result.
Barcelona might treat Atleti's counter-attack with a bit more respect over their next three meetings with the Rojiblancos than they did in that game, while Atleti might be less inclined to simply sit back and break. As the season has worn on, it's become clear that Barcelona aren't quite as strong as expected, while Atleti are much better. These teams have different styles, but they don't have to adapt the way they play to get results against each other. Gerardo Martino and Diego Simeone are both heading into this tie confident that they have the talent and chemistry to play their normal game and win.
But that doesn't mean there won't be significant adjustments. The Champions League knockout stage always features attention to small details from managers and serious tactical adjustments, often producing tight games with a limited number of chances. Simeone and Martino have both proven to be tactically astute managers over their careers, and managers who are willing to deviate from their regular game plan significantly when the situation calls for it.
It's possible that both teams could send out their normal teams, play their normal tactics and let the best team win in this tie. It's also possible that the managers could engage in a tactical battle that resembles clashes between Pep Guardiola's Barcelona and Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid, or Alex Ferguson's Manchester United and Jose Mourinho's Chelsea. We won't know until they take the pitch, and that's part of what makes this tie so interesting.
Barcelona suffered a serious blow last week when goalkeeper Victor Valdes tore his ACL. He'll be out for the rest of the season, the World Cup, and since he's out of contract, will have a hard time pulling in a long-term deal with a big salary attached this summer. Otherwise, Barca have no new concerns, though long-term absentees Carles Puyol, Isaac Cuenca and Jonathan dos Santos remain out. Pedro and Alex Song have knocks, but should be available.
Raul Garcia is suspended for Atletico Madrid, which could prove to be a big blow. Atleti have other attacking midfielders and could always change formations to accommodate David Villa, but Garcia's been a key player for them in Champions League. Javi Manquillo is also out, while Diego Costa is questionable after picking up a knock in training. However, Diego Simeone said that he expects Costa to play.
Projected lineups (left to right)
Atletico Madrid (4-4-2): Thibaut Courtois; Filipe Luis, Diego Godin, Miranda, Juanfran; Koke, Mario Suarez, Gabi, Arda Turan; Diego Costa, David Villa
Diego Costa vs. Barcelona's defenders - Diego Costa's goal-scoring record is impressive, but his value to Atleti is just as much in his work rate as it is in his finishing. He's an absolute terror and goes into physical challenges like a defensive midfielder. The combination of all of his skills should make him a nightmare for a fairly average Barcelona defense to mark. And if David Villa starts next to him in the absence of Raul Garcia, they'll have even more to think about.
Gerardo Martino vs. His tendency to pick Cesc - Cesc Fabregas hasn't exactly been terrific in big matches during any stretch since he returned to Barcelona, but he's been especially poor since the winter break. He played 90 minutes over the weekend, while the shifts of Andres Iniesta to the left and Neymar to the right haven't seemed to do anything good for them. There's not a good reason for Martino to pick Cesc. It'll probably handicap his team. He might do it anyway.
Don't expect Atleti to come away from Camp Nou with a win, but their recent form and their performance in their first match of the season against Barcelona suggests that they can hang with the Blaugrana. This clash of styles should result in Barca controlling the game and getting on the scoreboard, but Atleti's strikers are better than Barca's defenders. They'll nick one on the counter to make the return leg extremely interesting. 2-1 Barcelona.