Barcelona manager Tata Martino has admitted tonight’s trip to Real Madrid is a do-or-die situation for his team.
A defeat would leave Martino’s men seven points adrift of their eternal rivals with just nine games remaining, and the Argentine boss knows there is no room for any more mistakes.
“It’s probably our last chance to win the league,” he conceded. “It would be really tough to make up seven points – or even four.
“There are very few points left to play for and the top teams don’t tend to slip up much at this stage of the season. A draw won’t be good enough – we need to win.”
The vast majority of Martino’s team selection is well settled, with his only big decision coming on the right wing, where Brazilian starlet Neymar is vying with Pedro and Alexis Sanchez for a starting berth.
Despite a disappointing recent run, Neymar got the nod for Barca’s last big game – the Champions League meeting with Manchester City ten days ago – as Martino attempted in emphatic fashion to build the confidence of his club’s major summer signing, whose form appears to have been affected by the ongoing furore over the financial terms of his transfer.
“Neymar played very well against Manchester City and I want to reiterate that he is one of the five best players in the world, along with Messi, Ronaldo and the odd other player,” stated Martino, hinting that the Brazilian winger will again earn selection tonight. “I don’t need a match, half a match or ten minutes to confirm all the qualities he has. I don’t want him to feel that he’s just another player. I’ll try to make him feel special, because he is.”
Irrespective of the personnel he opts to field, Martino has no doubts about the manner of the performance he hopes to see from his team, making it clear that he has every faith in Barca’s tried and trusted method of attempting to dominate possession. Martino did, however, acknowledge the threat posed by Madrid’s potent strike force.
“We have to play well, keep possession of the ball, build up the play and not lose balls that would allow Madrid to counter-attack,” he summarised. “We have to avoid one-onones out wide with Bale and Cristiano.”
And Martino takes considerable solace in being able to call upon Lionel Messi, noting: “In all the important games, Messi has always turned up.”