The home team have won just one of their last six games, with their problems in goal fully evident in Tuesday’s 1-0 Champions League defeat at Juventus, while Barca’s infamous troubles away from home were again on display in last weekend’s fortuitous and unimpressive 2-1 win at rock-bottom Leganes.
Considering the form of both teams and the potential repercussions of a defeat, it would be wise to expect a low-scoring draw – and managers Diego Simeone and Ernesto Valverde would, in truth, probably settle for that outcome.
But one man in particular would love to be the matchwinner for his new team, and our talking points ahead of the game can only kick off with former Atletico star Antoine Griezmann.
HOSTILE RECEPTION FOR GRIEZMANN
Griezmann is set to receive a raucous – and not particularly friendly – welcome from Atletico fans as he returns to face his former club for the first time since his protracted summer move to Barcelona.
The French striker was a hero for Atletico during his five seasons with the club, netting 133 goals to become Los Rojiblancos’ fifth-highest scorer of all-time. But the manner of his departure – with suspicions that he negotiated and agreed the move to Barca in the middle of last season’s La Liga and Champions League title bids – left a sour taste in the mouth and undermined Griezmann’s legacy at the Wanda Metropolitano.
Injury to Ousmane Dembele, who has been ruled out for ten weeks, means that Griezmann is almost certain to start in attack alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, and his confidence was boosted by a well-taken goal in Wednesday’s Champions League stroll past Borussia Dortmund.
But this will be an altogether different challenge, and Griezmann will have to show strong personality to overcome the jeers of the home crowd and the difficulty of breaking down Atleti’s notoriously rigid defence. And if he scores…will he dare celebrate?
MIDFIELD CONUNDRUM FOR VALVERDE
The game will provide another serious test to Barca’s fragile away form, which has seen them lose on eight occasions on their travels so far in 2019. And the biggest question for visiting boss Valverde is the composition of his midfield, which has changed on an almost weekly basis throughout the season.
Frenkie De Jong appears to be the only man guaranteed a slot in the centre of the field, having started 12 of his team’s 13 league games so far, and the absence of Sergio Busquets through suspension means the Dutchman will probably play as a defensive midfielder behind two from Arthur, Arturo Vidal and Ivan Rakitic.
The Croatian veteran was more or less frozen out earlier in the season but now appears to be back in favour, having started the midweek win against Dortmund after delivering a decent display from the bench in last weekend’s messy win at Leganes.
Whoever gets the nod, a key demand will be providing defensive support in the wide areas against Atletico’s marauding full-backs Kieran Trippier and Renan Lodi, whose strong surges forward are a key element of the home team’s attacking play.
The energy of Vidal and the positional awareness of Rakitic, therefore, could see them get the nod ahead of Arthur…but considering Valverde’s uncertainty over his midfield this season, expect anything.
SIMEONE SEARCHING FOR RIGHT BLEND
Although they have again been strong at the back, home team boss Simeone is still searching for the right blend to make his team an effective attacking force.
Atletico have drawn four of their last nine games with a 1-1 scoreline, illustrating their problems in killing off games, and none of the combinations employed by Simeone until now have looked particularly effective.
Saul and Thomas Partey have returned after being suspended for last week’s 1-1 draw at Granada and are set to start in midfield alongside Koke, while Alvaro Morata is a certain starter in attack. The other two places in the front six are up for grabs, though, with Joao Felix, Angel Correa, Vitolo, Thomas Lemar, Hector Herrera and Marcos Llorente all available.
Although he isn’t the biggest name in that list, perhaps the X-factor will be Mexican midfielder Herrera. The former Porto captain didn’t have much playing time earlier in the season but has started the last three games, and has shown himself capable of delivering the box-to-box energy which could punish Barca’s relatively static midfield.
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