Match Preview: FC Barcelona v Atlético Madrid
MICHAEL HARRISON TOLL
Barcelona (CNA).- It's no secret that Camp Nou is a fortress. FC Barcelona’s home stadium, is a concrete behemoth surrounded by towering vertical walls. But other features common to historically impenetrable and legendary strongholds — such as a heavy wooden draw bridge, a crocodile-stocked moat, and a battery of skilled archers perched high above — are conspicuously absent from the exterior of the giant bowl. That's because the Catalans have never needed to defend their home turf from the outside. They have done it inside, on the field, and perhaps no more so than in this season's Copa del Rey, in which Camp Nou has been the scene of an impressive trio of second leg victories — in the last 32, in the last 16, and in the quarter-finals. And on Tuesday night, at 9.00pm CET the Catalans, now in the semis, hope to vanquish visiting Atlético Madrid as well, and continue their chase for a third straight title.
Neymar Jr misses the game through suspension, while Rafinha is out with a fractured nose sustained at the weekend.
But Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta and Lucas Digne are back to full fitness and get the nod. As is usual practice this season, Ter Stegen is being rested in cup matches, with Jordi Masip and Jasper Cillessen taking the goalkeeping berths, while Jeremy Mathieu is the only other first team member that has been left out.
The full squad is therefore as follows: Cillessen, Masip, Piqué, Rakitic, Sergio, Denis Suárez, Arda, Iniesta, Luis Suárez, Messi, Mascherano, Alcácer, Jordi Alba, Digne, Sergi Roberto, André Gomes, Aleix Vidal and Umtiti.
Atlético, meanwhile, have some big shoes to fill as well. Their midfielder and teamcaptian, Gabi Fernández, is also suspended after being shown a yellow card in last week's first leg.
Perhaps the most probing inquiries FC Barcelona manager Luis Enrique Martínez faced at Monday's pre-game press conference were those pleading for the third-year manager to rate the alternatives at his disposal to replace the suspended Neymar, and how that selection stacks up against the pick of midfield replacements he had when Busquets and Iniesta went down a few weeks ago.
“I have fewer choices than I did in the midfield, for sure,” he said. “But the options are interesting and I have very good players.”
The names of both Arda Turan and Denis Suárez were floated as possible replacements, although the coach was loath to reveal just how he would fill Neymar’s shoes for fear of tipping his hand to his counterpart, Diego Simeone.
“We’re going to try and make him think,” Luis Enrique said.
Simeone, for his part, appeared to be termpering expectations. "Reality is the only thing that counts," he said. "We're facing a team which is very strong at home."
The only thing left to do, he said, was for Atlético to "play with the same intensity we have throughout the season...from there, everything will come to us."
Barça are undefeated since 5 January, when they dropped their opening match of 2017, a 2–1 loss at Athletic Club in the first leg of the last 16. Since then, the Catalans have harvested seven wins and two draws from an alternating schedule of La Liga and Copa del Rey fixtures, including home return-leg knockout blows to Athletic Club followed by Real Sociedad in the quarterfinals. Barça’s most recent game was a 3–0 La Liga triumph over Athletic Club on Saturday at Camp Nou.
Atlético Madrid also won in La Liga over the weekend, dispatching visiting Alavés, 2–0, at the Estadio Vicente Calderón on Saturday evening. Last week’s 2–1 first-leg loss to Barça at the Calderón snapped what had been a five-game unbeaten streak, which included two wins in a row followed by three straight draws.
Barça are looking to eliminate Los Colchoneros from the Copa del Rey for the second time in three seasons. The Blaugranas previously knocked out Atlético in the quarterfinals of the 2014/15 edition.
Tuesday’s Cup clash will be the third meeting between the two clubs this season after a 1–1 draw at Camp Nou in league play on 21 September and last week’s 2–1 Barça victory in the first leg in Madrid. They are set to face off again in La Liga on 28 February at the Calderón and, hypothetically, they pair could meet in later rounds of this season’s UEFA Champions League, in which they both made it through to the last 16.
Barça, the winningest team in Copa del Rey history as far as titles go, with 28, are seeking to expand their legendary status even further with a third consecutive title in the 83-team domestic tournament. In fact, the last time any team won three straight Spanish Cup titles came when Barça did it in 1951, 1952, and 1953.