The top two in La Liga meet this Saturday in a game which could decide beyond all reasonable doubt the destiny of the title. Barcelona will have an 11 point advantage if they win the game with just 7 to play after this. That would give them a huge amount of freedom to really focus all their energies on their bid to win the Champions League again.
Atletico Madrid though will be out to cause an upset and cut the gap to 5 points by claiming a rare win at Camp Nou. That would also give them the superior head-to-head record and would suggest that the title race may be back on after all. Therefore it’s a very significant game and we’ve highlighted five key battles that could decide it.
Clement Lenglet vs Antoine Griezmann
You sense Antoine Griezmann needs to have a big game if Atletico Madrid are going to get the win they desperately need to stay in the title hunt. This will be his first trip to Camp Nou since turning down a move to Barcelona last summer. He is rumoured to be reconsidering his options and it’ll be interesting to see what kind of reaction he gets from the Catalan fans here.
He’s likely to be up against compatriot Clement Lenglet. The 23 year old has had a pretty good first season at Camp Nou. He has played a lot more than expected due to the injury problems of Samuel Umtiti, who returned to the team in midweek at Villarreal. He looked well short of match sharpness though in a poor display as Barca conceded 4 goals which suggests Lenglet is almost certain to return here and will most likely keep his place for the trip to Old Trafford.
Griezmann will certainly test Lenglet more than almost any other opponent he has faced this season. How Lenglet copes in this and other big games coming up, may help Barcelona decide whether or not to splash the cash on a new centre-back in the summer.
Luis Suarez vs Diego Godin
At the other end, there is another set of international teammates who will be heading into battle. Luis Suarez and Diego Godin have had several duels in recent years and Godin will certainly have his hands full with his fellow Uruguayan here.
Suarez struck brilliantly in the 93rd minute in midweek to rescue a point for Barcelona at Villarreal in a dent to Atleti’s title hopes. He’s had another excellent season with only teammate Leo Messi having netted more goals in La Liga.
Godin though will be determined to stop him. This may be the last really big game that Godin plays in an Atleti shirt with a summer move to Inter in the pipeline. He of course famously won the title for Atletico Madrid on this ground in 2014 with a header sealing a 1-1 draw on the final day of the season. Therefore the trip should bring happy memories for Godin and a few of the other Atleti players although it should be said they’ve failed to win a game at Camp Nou in the Simeone era. That will surely have to change on Saturday if they are going to get their hands on the league trophy this time around.
Ivan Rakitic vs Rodri
— Bayern Strikes (@BayernStrikes) April 4, 2019
In the middle of the park, one battle to look out for is the one between Ivan Rakitic and Rodri. They’ve both been their respective side’s most impressive and certainly most consistent midfield option this season. Rodri has looked right at home in this Atleti side from day one while Rakitic has put in some displays which again make you question just why Barcelona would even toy with the idea of selling him this summer.
Rakitic is the most forward thinking of Barcelona’s likely midfield trio here. Therefore the responsibility will lie on Rodri to track his runs and it’ll be a real test for the 22 year old. Rakitic has already effectively knocked one of the Madrid clubs out of the title race this term with his Clasico winner in March and he has the chance to help Barca wrap up another league crown here.
Leo Messi vs Filipe Luis
Inevitably, much of Atleti’s focus will be on trying to stop Leo Messi. He scored the only goal in this fixture last March, which also effectively wrapped up the title race. Even Diego Simeone conceded after that game that there’s very little that can be done to stop him at times but one key point he is sure to make here is to get his side to avoid giving away silly free-kicks around the penalty area.
It was a free-kick that decided this fixture last term and Messi has scored from direct free-kicks in each of Barcelona’s last three games heading into this one. It’s almost like a penalty now when he lines up from range and Filipe Luis is just one of a number of Atleti players who will need to be wary of fouling the Argentine.
Messi’s tendency to drift inside will ensure that the Brazilian doesn’t have to carry the whole burden of responsibility. However Filipe Luis will be keen to put in a good display having been linked with a surprise move to Barcelona this summer, to act as back-up to Jordi Alba. At the age of 33, he may be very tempted if such an offer comes his way.
Jordi Alba vs Santiago Arias
— Mckenzie Budd (@MckenzieBudd2) April 2, 2019
Talking of full-backs, there could be a real duel on the opposite side of the pitch too. Messi aside, Jordi Alba has been Barcelona’s main attacking weapon at times this season. He has linked up brilliantly with the Argentine and has once more been comfortably the best left-back in La Liga, ensuring his bizarre international exclusion didn’t last long.
Santiago Arias will have a fair amount of defending to do as a result in this game but he has had an impressive first season in Atleti colours and has perhaps now permanently dislodged Juanfran from Diego Simeone’s starting eleven. The 27 year old Colombian international hasn’t played in many games of this size though and it will be a real test of his temperament as he looks to cope with the threat offered by both Alba and Philippe Coutinho on the Barcelona left.