Barcelona will embark on their third game in eight days when they take to the Camp Nou pitch this Saturday to face their nearest title challengers, Atletico Madrid. Coach Luis Enrique has not been complaining, but has needed to rotate his squad extensively.
Despite gaining a second-minute lead courtesy of 20-year-old Munir El-Haddadi – deputising for Neymar – against Malaga last weekend, Enrique’s much-changed line-up struggled at times against spirited opponents, especially in a defence that saw wholesale changes, with Javier Mascherano the only regular component.
Aleix Vidal, taking Dani Alves’ place at right-back, and Adriano, making a rare appearance on the left, flanked a central pairing of Thomas Vermaelen and Mascherano. The Belgian in particular had a torrid time against Malaga’s attack and only after his half-time replacement by Jeremy Mathieu did things improve.
With the combative Ardan Turan preferred to Ivan Rakitic in midfield, there was also a sense, as with Vidal, of Enrique looking to integrate into the side the two signings whose debuts had been significantly delayed pending the lifting of Barcelona’s transfer embargo at the end of 2015.
Vidal grew into the game once he got to grips with the challenge posed by Malaga wide man Chory Castro, while Turan’s sometimes misplaced aggression was eventually replaced by the more cultured creativity of Rakitic. It was no coincidence that Barca were at their strongest following the Croatian’s entry to the fray alongside Andres Iniesta.
Luis Suarez unselfishly set up Munir’s opener, but was otherwise as anonymous as Lionel Messi, with both remaining peripheral figures for most of first half. Messi’s emergence into the spotlight with a moment of magic to score the winner shortly after the break, however, showed the value of just having the great man on the pitch.
With one eye on the impending clash of the top two, a must-win for both sides, Enrique faced some interesting choices when it came to selecting his team to take on Athletic Bilbao in Wednesday night’s Copa del Rey quarter-final second leg encounter at Camp Nou.
Barca won the first leg at San Mames with a strong enough starting XI to suggest that the Copa is not being taken lightly by Enrique. Messi was absent with injury and Suarez through suspension, but it is hard to believe either would have missed out if available.
The Barca Coach has the demeanour of a man who would never dream of taking any competition lightly and it was therefore no surprise when Messi, Suarez and the fit-again Neymar all started at Camp Nou, where the Catalans duly earned a last-four berth with a 3-1 win, 5-2 on aggregate.
Victory against Athletic was ultimately comfortable but, as at Malaga, it took Barca until the second period to assert their authority, which they ultimately did as goals from Gerard Pique and Neymar sealed the win on the night following Suarez’s equaliser soon after the interval.
Pique was suspended for the win at Malaga after collecting five yellow cards, but his presence alongside Mascherano will restore stability to the heart of Barcelona’s defence. That will be essential against Atletico if Barca are to contain the threat of Antoinne Griezmann.
Ahead of Saturday’s encounter, Barca’s ability to win games in which they have not played particularly well has been clearly demonstrated in recent days and Enrique will be aware that it is a trait often present in champions. On Saturday, Diego Simeone’s men will provide the biggest test of Barca’s title credentials since the Clasico.