Atlético Madrid will seek to defeat FC Barcelona at Camp Nou on Saturday for the first time since 2006. Here are three factors that could determine if the league leaders leave Catalonia a step closer to the title.
Marcos Llorente’s late runs into the penalty area.
He is potentially LaLiga’s player of the season, and on Saturday afternoon, workhorse Marcos Llorente will have to be at his all-action best.
Llorente’s 22 total goal contributions (12 scored/10 assisted) are the most among all Atlético players, and Celta Vigo’s Iago Aspas is the only other player to reach double-digits in goals and assists this season. And against a slack, error-prone Barcelona defense, Llorente should have opportunities to do what he does best — combine with a full back, attack space, and pop up in dangerous areas.
We just saw Llorente do this against Elche at the Martínez Valero, where Atlético picked up three vital points thanks to the star midfielder’s first-half winner.
Diego Simeone has relished transforming Llorente into the new Raúl García — another big-time performance in another big-time game would be quite a good Rulo impression.
Koke in an advanced midfield role.
Atlético’s captain is enjoying an excellent season despite managing just three total goal contributions (with a solitary goal at Cádiz on Jan. 31). But no current colchonero has more goals against Barcelona than Koke, with three. Few players — let alone midfielders — in LaLiga have completed more passes than Koke, either.
The 29-year-old has been seen knitting moves together at the base of Atlético’s midfield for much of this season. But Geoffrey Kondogbia’s timely re-emergence as a midfield anchor against Elche could see him included in the starting 11 against Barcelona. Should Simeone follow through, Koke will play in a more creative role closer to the box, combining more often with Llorente and Kieran Trippier along the right-hand side.
Koke acting as the attacking-third initiator — pinging a long ball toward Trippier, who will sling it into space for Llorente — will be key to bypassing Sergio Busquets in Barcelona’s midfield and stretching the blaugrana’s vulnerable defense.
The right partner for Luis Suárez.
El Pistolero’s return to Camp Nou as an Atlético player is the juiciest storyline here (other than the obvious title implications). Suárez is sitting on 19 goals this season, and despite his love for his old club, he is likely extremely motivated to grab a 20th and potentially knock his former teammates out of the race.
But Simeone will have to make sure his 34-year-old forward is supported adequately. Suárez thrives when several teammates are around him, close to the penalty area. An example from last weekend — though he missed the shot, Suárez sprang into action after this lovely interplay with Mario Hermoso and Ángel Correa.
It could be Llorente who nominally partners Suárez on Saturday, but there is a strong possibility Correa starts, as Simeone values his work rate. Thomas Lemar trained normally Thursday, but recurring knee tendinitis kept him out of Wednesday’s session at the Wanda Metropolitano — Correa’s chances to get into the 11 go up exponentially if Lemar isn’t well enough to play.
João Félix — still battling through ankle problems that will take an offseason to heal — will almost certainly be a consideration for the second half.