After what seems like a particularly drawn out fortnight of internationals, Atlético Madrid return to action on Saturday evening, as the Wanda Metropolitano welcomes pace-setters Barcelona for the first time.
One of the best-known and most successful clubs in the world, Barça need little introduction. The blaugrana are 24-time LaLiga champions, four-time Champions League winners and the three-time defending Copa del Rey holders. Boasting an intimidating array of talent, with Real Madrid they make up one half of the Liga Santander duopoly that Atleti were the last club to break.
But, for a moment, things looked less than rosy for Barça this summer. Neymar Jr., one of their fearsome MSN front three and the heir-apparent to Lionel Messi’s crown as club talisman, did the unthinkable: he left. His world record €222m transfer to Paris Saint-Germain dropped jaws around the footballing world and left the club in an unfamiliar position.
So accustomed are Barcelona to their place at the top of the food chain, having a wealthier club swoop for one of their prized assets was a jarring experience, one that led to talk of court cases, injunctions and unrest among supporters and the boardroom.
Replacements such as Paulinho were deemed inadequate, fans were unhappy, and after a 5-1 aggregate unravelling against Real in the Supercopa things were looking, well, decidedly less fantastic than usual.
No one told Ernesto Valverde, however. The new coach, recruited from Athletic Bilbao in the summer, has his new side currently atop La Liga with seven straight wins and a goal difference of +21. In the Champions League, Valverde’s men humbled Juventus with a 3-0 win at Camp Nou. The fixture list may have been fairly kind, but Barça have taken full advantage. They are in intimidating form, and Atleti will have to be at their strongest to contain them.
One to watch
Take your pick. Whether it’s Andrés Iniesta, Luis Suárez or even Denis Suarez, Barcelona are strong across the field. Amongst all this talent, however, there’s still an obvious choice for the one player Atlético will need to shackle in order to take something from the game, and he’s pictured above.
Not sure any more needs to be written here, just to add that he dragged Argentina to the World Cup with a hat-trick midweek and has already scored 11 La Liga goals this season. When the world’s greatest footballer is playing like a man with a point to prove, any side is in for a torrid time.
Of course there’s plenty, and in recent years games against Barcelona have provided some of Atlético’s greatest moments. Barça fell to Atleti in the quarter-finals of both rojiblanco runs to the Champions League final. In 2014, a 1-0 win at the Vicente Calderón was enough to see Atleti into the semis with a 2-1 aggregate win. In 2016, it was a 2-0 home win that overturned a 2-1 deficit and put Atleti through again.
These are the only victories Diego Simeone has masterminded over Barca as a manager. As famous as they are, it’s a draw that remains his crowning achievement: the 1-1 tie that saw his side clinch a first LaLiga crown for 18 years.
Tensions had risen to fever pitch, as Atlético looked to have the title in their grip entering May 2014. But a defeat at Levante and a home draw with Malaga meant that the final fixture, away to Barcelona on May 17, was a title play off, with Atleti needing a draw to take the trophy.
It started badly. Diego Costa and Arda Turan went off injured early on, then Alexis Sánchez scored a sublime opener for Barca in the 33rd minute. But Diego Godín rose imperiously to head in from a corner to level the match, and so it remained.