Based on the noise coming out of Atletico Madrid's dressing room, they consider their Saturday afternoon trip to the Camp Nou a zero sum game. "We will go to the Camp Nou to win" was the battle cry on Friday morning and it makes sense that Atletico would want to make ground on their rivals, who have a game in hand and sit level on points with Atletico. There is also plenty of evidence to suggest that it's not such a wise approach to take.
Atletico have lost their last fives games against Barcelona and there is a sense, even for the most ardent rojiblanco supporter, that Diego Simeone does not know how to beat Luis Enrique's Barcelona. They have conceded 10 goals in those five games and with Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar in such good form, selecting a balanced midfield is tantamount to capturing all three points at the Camp Nou.
Atletico's midfield needs tweaking. Simeone's admitted prior to the Celta Vigo game that "Some teams have started to find a way to make us suffer and so we will look for a way to break the pressure." There is a struggle taking place at the Vicente Calderon and inside Simeone's head, it seems. It might stem from the lack of goal from Atletico's strikers but ultimately, it is based on decisions to be made regarding Atletico's personnel in the middle of the field. Cholo toyed with the idea of a three man middle prior to the arrival of Augusto Fernandez and Matias Kranevitter, but he has reverted back to his tried and tested 4-4-2 in recent weeks.
That formation continued to work, as it had in the past, but everything was not right. Atletico were not conceding and were dominating matches but were relying on scoring late goals without creating too much in the general scheme of things. That luck appears to have run out, however, and you can just look at Gabi's shot map for insight into how badly Atletico struggled to make a breakthrough against Sevilla. The further the season rolls on, the more desperate opposing teams get and the deeper they sit, which means more creativity is needed and all of sudden Atletico are in trouble. The most pertinent problem Simeone is now faced with is instigating creativity without compromising the defensive solidity of his side.
So, you have to ask if Atletico have the creativity in their midfield when playing with four that includes Saul Niguez, Koke, Augusto Fernandez and Gabi? The answer should be yes but Atletico's strikers have struggled so much lately that whatever selection Simeone picks is never going to be good enough to cover all the defensive work while also breaking down and scoring the goals that are needed to win three points on a weekly basis. Saul has offered an attacking impetus but his runs into the box are sporadic and can not be considered a tactic to be relied on on a regular basis. Augusto plays in a deeper role at Atletico and Gabi has only ever scored seven goals in 213 appearances for the club.
Koke, who you might think isn't having his most influential season, is actually playing as he always has from a creative standpoint, but he desperately needs help from his attackers. The issues stem from Atletico's activity in the penalty area. Luciano Vietto, not of the traditional number nine mould, will never score 10 tap-ins in a season, while Jackson Martinez, the kind of player who you expect to get these goals, is struggling to get into these areas of the field when he is given the opportunity. So what are Atletico's best chances of breaking down Barcelona without compromising the integrity of their midfield?
Angel Correa had done enough to merit an entire 90 minutes against Barcelona but is suspended and is not available for selection. He was Atletico's only beacon of hope in an otherwise poor display against Celta Vigo and can break teams down on his own. The Arentine's ability in one-on-one situations would have been vital at the Camp Nou on Saturday. Instead, it appears Simeone will have to remain with Vietto, who is similar in one-on-one situations, and alongside Antoine Griezmann should be enough to occupy Barcelona's defenders from playing within their comfort zones. Atletico's midfield will be tied up in matching Barcelona's engine room while also lending a helping hand in stemming MSN's threat in their attacking third. It will be up to Vietto and Griezmann to hold the ball and run at their opponents incessantly.
While most of the news coming out of the Vicente Calderon surrounds transfers bans and the futures of both Oliver and Fernando Torres, what will be on Simeone's mind is how to break down Barcelona while remaining solid at the back in order to remain competitive for as long as possible on Saturday afternoon.