On paper this is a match that the reigning Spanish and European champions should lose or draw [On paper people!]
Let’s take track record. Thirty times in the last 25 years Barcelona have played Atletico away from home: 15 defeats, six draws only nine wins. Of those nine wins the vast majority have come since the Pep Guardiola-Leo Messi era began.
In other words, prior to this club’s re-birth with the brand of football which is now irrevocably associated with Barça and prior to the explosion of Messi as an all-time great, the Catalans almost always lost this fixture.
Playing Atleti away is a thorny, bruising business. Many teams end up looking like a ballet dancer trying to get to the bar for a campari ahead of sixteen lock-forward All-Blacks desperate for a beer.
More, the torrent of wins in the last seven years have only come when Barça are fit, confident, full of high tempo passing and defensively sound.
Usually the very best Barça take away is a single goal win. Not always, but predominantly.
So why should Saturday afternoon in the Calderón [literally the Cauldron!] be different.
Firstly, I don’t think that it’s impossible that Barcelona either draw or win. But here’s why Atleti should start favourites.
The champions take the pitch without Claudio Bravo, Gerard Piqué and Dani Alves.
The Champions can no longer call on the experience of Xavi and Pedro in this most thorny, boiling hot of matches. [NB one or other of the two played some minutes in each of Barcleona’s four wins over Atleti last season and Pedro gave Messi the assist for the 1-0 win in the last meeting which clinched the title for Luis Enrique’s side]
Do you consider absences like this small details?
Perhaps you do. Then bet against my guide.
But let’s add something else.
Barcelona, with the exception of the European Supercup, haven’t been tucking their chances away with the normal deadly efficiency this season. In losing the Spanish Supercup people focused on Athletic thumping them at San Mames and drawing in the Camp Nou.
Yet Barcelona should, conservatively, have scored six times across those two games.
In winning 1-0 against Athletic and Málaga fewer chances were squandered, defensive rigour, stamina and speed of passing were restored but it’s still the case that the champions haven’t been hitting ramming speed.
Ter Stegen is a fine keeper but his pre-season has been bumpy, he conceded eight times in the two competitive games he played and this will be, remarkably enough, his La Liga debut.
He’s capable of excelling and repelling Atleti if it’s his day.
Good keeper, exceptional as a sweeper-keeper. But bang at the top of his game? Perhaps not quite.
The final element to take into account if you are going to back Barcelona for what would be a monumentally important and impressive away win concerns the strikers.
The ‘Trident‘ is what truly sets Barcelona far apart from the madding crowd around Europe.
I don’t need to explain or promote their brilliance here. But both Neymar and Messi will be suffering the physical and mental tiredness of jet-lag after what Spain calls the ‘Fifa-virus’ [as will Mascherano at the back] while Luis Suárez will be free of that.
But Suárez needs games.
He thrives on three games a week and often just loses a knife-edge of deadly clinical finishing when he’s deprived of competitive football – as he has been now for a fortnight.
Again, could he buck that trend and score/make?
And, pound for pound, Messi’s 23 goals in 26 meetings with Atleti is probably his most impressive domestic performance.
But are they right at their sharpest?
Atleti? Likely to be Oblak: Juanfran, Jimenez, Godín, Felipe: Gabi, Koke, Oliver, Tiago: Griezmann, Torres/Jackson
Barça? Likely Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Vermaelen, Mascherano, Alba: Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta: Neymar, Suárez, Messi.
Griezmann didn’t score in four defeats to Barcelona last season but with La Real had both a decent scoring and winning record. He’s on fire right now.
So is Messi but maybe there’s a dark horse in Rakitic. He loves the big games – not only the Champions League final v Juve but goals v Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Porto, Bayern as well as three v Atletico across his career.
Finally, Barcelona were excellent at defending the ball into the box last season but have been weak in pre-season and their regular games so far. And with Piqué missing, plus Stegen’s tendency to come for something and not be a stone-cold certainty to get there then Atleti’s Godín, Torres or Giménez might reward you with a header.