Wounded Barcelona won't relish Atletico challenge

The last thing Barcelona need after crashing to an unexpected home defeat to bitter rivals Real Madrid is a tricky clash with Atletico Madrid for a spot in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals.

luis enrique

Luis Enrique must lift his players for the clash against Atletico Madrid Source: Getty Images

The UCL favourites lost their first match in 40 in all competitions at the weekend. 

Barcelona still lead La Liga with a comfortable six-point buffer over Atleti but the 2-1 debacle to Zinedine Zidane's 'Los Blancos' will have jolted their confidence three days before meeting Diego Simeone's 'Rojiblancos'.

What will worry Luis Enrique and his coaching staff is not so much the defeat but the fact that Barca were outplayed and outmanoeuvred by a magnificent Madrid side that fully deserved the points, which came from brilliant strikes from Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The last time Barcelona had tasted defeat was in a league match against Sevilla way back in October.

Barca no doubt would not be too happy with the UCL draw. If there was one team Barca would have wanted to avoid it just had to be Atleti, particularly since the second leg will be at the Vicente Calderon.

Barca are still the team to beat in Europe, make no mistake, and common sense would suggest that they should beat Atleti over two legs.

And they are still nicely placed to secure a second treble in two seasons.

In so doing they would become the first team since Italy's AC Milan in 1990 to retain the world's most glamorous and important trophy.

Barca were rather flat in the Clasico, perhaps due to the fact that star strikers Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar were involved in a set of tough 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers across the Atlantic in the last 10 days.

Yet the world does not seem to get enough of the 'Blaugrana' at the moment.

It's a scenario that suits Simeone to a tee.

The wily Argentine, who loves nothing more than thumb his nose at the game's richest clubs, will devise the right tactics to minimise Barca's multiple threats and cajole his players into lifting their game, same as he did two seasons ago when Atleti sprang a surprise and beat Barca at the same stage of the competition.

Simeone and Atleti were seconds away from snaring the ultimate prize when they led crosstown rivals Real in the final but Sergio Ramos broke their hearts with a headed late equaliser before Real went on to win 4-1 to secure 'La Decima'.

Barca versus Atleti has all the makings of a dramatic and highly-charged confrontation. It's the clash of the round as far as worldwide appeal is concerned.
Despite the weekend tribulations, it is hard to see Messi, Suarez, Neymar and Andres Iniesta stumble against a team that pride themselves on camaraderie, work ethic and an incredible fighting spirit.

Atleti are strong across the park but do not have the eye-catching game of their more popular opponents.

While Atleti were scrambling to a shootout win over PSV after two goalless draws in the previous round Barca were turning on a master class against Arsenal.

But this is where the beauty of the contest lies: it's going to be a tactical and mental battle that is more likely to be decided by the team that gets it right on the day.

Barca should prevail in the end but Atleti will give them a hell of a run for their money.

"We are ready to fight them on two fronts", Simeone promised after Atleti trounced Real Betis 5-1 at the weekend.

The 'Arab derby' between Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City is very nicely poised, too.

The two clubs that form part of Gulf corporations have risen to continental prominence and are very much Europe's nouveau riche.

PSG impressed many pundits with they way they dismissed Chelsea, beating the English champions twice.

City, on the other hand, provided a microcosm of their Jeckyl and Hyde character in the last round, beating Dynamo Kyiv away and being held to a bore draw at home.

The French club will feel confident but much will depend on the indirect tussle at a distance between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Sergio Aguero, two strikers who are at the top of their game and waiting for the moment to leave their definitive mark on the Champions League.

The other ties appear to be more straight-forward.

German champions Bayern Munich, after staging such an extraordinary comeback against Juventus, will feel turbo charged against Portugal's Benfica.

Bayern's Bundesliga companions Wolfsburg turned a few heads by reaching this stage of the competition but they are not expected to offer Madrid much more than tough resistance.


:: The UEFA Europa League is clearly a poor relation to the UCL in terms of standard and appeal but some of the football seen in the competition this season would not seem out of place in the big event.

Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund provided some exhilarating moments in their round of 16 ties against Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, which they won convincingly.

Brazilian Philippe Coutinho's splendid goal at Old Trafford that ultimately decided the tie was the sort of strike you'd expect from Messi.

Spurs had no answer to Dortmund's Gabon striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who gave an eye-opening demonstration of sublime finishing in both legs.

Liverpool and Dortmund, Jurgen Klopp's current and previous clubs, will come face to face in the quarter-finals.

"It's a story only football can write," Klopp said after the draw. "It's a game the whole world will watch."

It's also a tie that could give the competition the fillip it needs and deserves.

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5 min read
Published 4 April 2016 at 9:00am
By Philip Micallef
Source: SBS