Usually, it is the games between Barcelona and Real Madrid that are the title deciders, with the fact that whoever wins the match will probably go on to win the League only stoking the already intense rivalry. Nowadays, and over the past couple of years, it has been the games between Barca and the other team from the capital, Atletico Madrid, that decides who will be crowned the champions of Spain.
It has been this way for the past two years, with their second League meeting of the campaign determining the eventual La Liga winners. In 2014, a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou saw Atleti clinch their first title in 18 years and last season, Barca’s 1-2 victory at Vicente Calderon put them well on their way to their treble of trophies. It is a similar story this time around, albeit at an earlier stage of the campaign, but if there is a winner, they will set the tone for the rest of the season in terms of momentum and potentially pulling away from their opponents, particularly in the case of Barca.
Traditionally, there has not been much of a rivalry between Barca and Atleti, at least compared to the antipathy that Madrid have with the two contestants in this match, but thanks to what could be described as a ‘dark age’ for Los Blancos in terms of a dearth of domestic trophies, the stakes in this fixture have augmented considerably. Naturally, as the magnitude of the games increase, the animosity and acrimony increase with it, as players are challenging for 50/50 balls that little bit harder and getting in each other’s faces that little bit more aggressively. Boiling point is never far away.
There are certainly elements of a mismatch too. Luis Enrique’s men are the team that plays expansive, free-flowing football as well as being capable of adapting to the needs of the game to win by other means. Diego Simeone’s side prefer to wait, wait and wait a little bit longer so that their opposition seem to think they have a chance in the game before killing them off with a lethal counter-attack. They rarely have a Plan B.
They couldn’t be much more different. They are the antithesis of each other, even if Simeone attempted to play more aesthetically-pleasing football for a while and if La Blaugrana are capable of pulling off counters that would have Cholo even giddier than he already is on the touchline. It only adds to the differences of opinion on the pitch because Atleti are proving and continuing to prove that you don’t need to have the best players in the world or play the most beautiful football to be the best team.
The clash of styles is confirmed by the fact that Barca have what is widely regarded as the best attack around, and that Atleti have not only the best defence in La Liga, but also in Europe, conceding only eight goals. An intriguing point to consider is the South American influence on this detail, with Jan Oblak and Juanfran Torres the only Europeans in either the Catalans’ front three or Los Rojiblancos’ backline.
Delving even deeper, perhaps the key clash of the game will be Diego Godin, arguably the best centre-back in world football, against his compatriot Luis Suarez, who is probably the best No 9 right now. The pair know each other well from the Uruguay national team, but any niceties will be reserved for before and after the game.
Brazilian Filipe Luis will be absent through suspension on Saturday and he will be sorely missed in a back four that is used to consistently being selected together throughout the season. Not only that, but the 30-year-old would have been the best bet to do a decent job on Lionel Messi. Injuries and suspensions are sometimes deciding factors in games like these, and Filipe’s absence could have serious repercussions for Los Colchoneros.
Overall, the prize for the victor and the clash of styles of play, coupled with the burgeoning rivalry between the two clubs and Arda Turan’s first game against his former employers makes Saturday’s game an extremely interesting one. It may be a little premature to be classed as a title decider, but a Barca victory would see them go three points ahead of Atleti with a game in hand, a healthy cushion that may be a step too far going into the final months of the season.
With that in mind, expect an intense, high-octane game where Simeone’s side will sit back and play for the draw, anything else being a bonus.