League leaders Barcelona will host Atletico Madrid at the Camp Nou on Sunday.
And while a win for the Catalans will take the league title further away from Diego Simeone’s men, a few key battles might decide the outcome of the top of the table clash.
LIONEL MESSI V ANTOINE GRIEZMANN
What to say about the maestro, Messi? His composure in front of goal is simply instrumental.
The Argentine has been at the centre of Barcelona’s exploits over the past decade and can be the tipping point between winning and losing.
His pace, touch, skill, intelligence and goal return makes him one of the all time greats – with 23 La Liga goals in 26 matches this season.
Messi will start from the right of the attack, bidding to score his 600th career goal against an Atletico Madrid side in sparkling form of late.
For the visitors, a massive game awaits for Griezmann who has been the centre of interest from Barcelona since the end of the summer transfer window.
Back-to-back hat-tricks have elevated the Frenchman’s status to one of La Liga’s marquee attackers – with 15 goals in 23 matches – and he now has the chance to further showcase his talents at the Camp Nou.
The 25-year-old has plenty of class around him in Gabi, Koke and Saul Niguez – and a re-vitalised Diego Costa – to help unlock the Barcelona defence as the visitors look to cut the gap to two points at the top of the table.
SAMUEL UMTITI V DIEGO GODIN
Umiti has been a towering presence during recent Barcelona outings, and will be looking to continue his impressive form when he comes up against Costa and Griezmann.
The Frenchman had a slow start to life at the Camp Nou but has shown signs of his class this term alongside Gerard Pique at the centre of the Blaugrana defence.
Although Umtiti has a tough battle on his hands, Godin will have his work cut out for him when he comes up against Messi and Luis Suarez.
A natural leader, Godin is the heartbeat of the Atletico defence and will use his experience and physicality to curtail the dynamic Barcelona duo.
Godin’s lack of agility could lead to problems for the visitors, but if the Uruguayan can stamp his authority on the game – using his combative style – then Atletico are in with a chance to contend well with Ernesto Valverde’s side.
Umtiti may have won more aerial duels and concedes less free-kicks than Godin, but the Atletico star has made four times as many interceptions and nine times as many clearances compared to his opponent.
LUIS SUAREZ V DIEGO COSTA
Suarez has been one of the stand-out players in La Liga over the past three months with a series of glittering displays.
The Uruguayan has taken his game to new heights – with 20 goals and six assists in 23 league appearances this term – after a run of mixed form at the start of the season.
His ability to orchestrate proceedings has added another layer of quality to a star-studded Barcelona attack already boasting plenty of firepower – and if he’s allowed to dictate the game with such aplomb then Atletico will struggle.
But in Costa, Atletico have an equally influential player – who has been a revelation since his return from Chelsea, scoring five goals and providing two assists in 10 matches in all competitions.
The Spaniard never shies away from the battle and if he can bag a goal or tee up Griezmann for an early strike, then Atletico can gain a foothold in the contest.
But while they still remain unbeaten this season, a few costly draws and Atlético Madrid‘s stunning recent form has set up a genuine title race, with the two meeting on Sunday only five points apart.
Read on for a tactical preview of Sunday’s clash.
IS COUTINHO READY FOR THIS?
Barcelona’s club-record signing is also Ernesto Valverde’s biggest selection headache. Philippe Coutinho has big-game experience from his Liverpool days, but he arguably hasn’t played in a game this big before. The destination of this year’s title rests on Sunday’s clash.
Valverde may be better served trusting the midfield that he used before the 25-year-old’s arrival. Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets are guaranteed to start and Ivan Rakitic and Paulinho have been excellent.
Using Coutinho as an impact player off the bench could even be a smart ploy. Unleashing the Brazilian on a tiring Atlético would give Barca a late edge.
ATLÉTICO HAVE TO DECIDE WHETHER TO STICK OR TWIST
Has Barcelona’s draw on Thursday altered the outlook of this tie? Had Atlético been seven points behind, the plan would have been clear: go for the win.
But a five-point gap isn’t insurmountable. Barcelona may be unbeaten, but they’ve shown enough vulnerability that it’s easy to see them drawing three or four times in their final 11 games after Sunday.
So, does Diego Simeone play for a draw and look to make up the five-point gap elsewhere? It’s far from impossible.
4-4-2 VS 4-3-3: VALVERDE MAY LOOK TO NEW ROUTE FOR SUCCESS
Valverde’s succeeded this season by playing a lopsided 4-4-2, with four central midfielders and Lionel Messi nominally in the front two.
The system is designed to get Messi the ball as often as possible, usually a winning tactic. But it’s also led to plodding displays, like the one against Las Palmas on Thursday, where getting Messi the ball becomes Barcelona’s only tactic.
Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele give Valverde the option to play a front three, with one of the two joining Messi and Luis Suarez. Paulinho’s presence allows the manager to switch to 4-3-3 to happen without sacrificing midfield solidity.
CAN ATLÉTICO REPEAT FAST START?
When the two sides met in Madrid in October, Atlético controlled the tempo of the game in the beginning and duly took the lead in the 21st minute through Saúl. Before that, Antoine Griezmann had forced Marc-André Ter Stegen into two excellent saves.
Though Barcelona recovered to get a draw with an improved second-half display, it was the first time they dropped points this season, after winning their first seven league fixtures.
Don’t be surprised if Atlético try to repeat their performance. A fast start would put Barcelona under pressure, and make no mistake, Barca are feeling the pressure right now.
La Liga began training officials in the video assistant referee (VAR) system on Friday ahead of the technology’s expected introduction next season.
The Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) has announced it is seeking approval from the International Football Association Board (IFAB) to roll out VAR in La Liga at the start of the 2018-19 campaign.
IFAB will meet in Zurich this weekend to decide whether VAR should also be used during the World Cup in Russia this summer.
“From this Friday, March 2, the La Liga First Division referees and assistant referees will begin the offline phase of their technical training,” the RFEF wrote in a statement.
“This training will not have any impact at all on the refereeing of these games.”
VAR is already active in the top divisions in both Italy and Germany, while in England it has been used on a trial basis this season in selected domestic cup games.
The system is supposed to correct only “clear and obvious” errors, regarding decisions on goals, red cards, penalties and cases of mistaken identity.
Its implementation has proven controversial, however. Players and managers have complained of referees being too eager to defer to technology, while fans in stadiums have been left in the dark as to why decisions are being made.
On 26 October, RFEF acting President Juan Luis Larrea said unofficial experiments would be carried out in about 70 matches this season.
Refereering controversies regularly arise in La Liga. Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde complained on Thursday about an “invisible penalty” awarded to Las Palmas during the match that ended 1-1.