Barca's final push toward Liga title
Barcelona have a chance to win La Liga in the decisive match against Atletico Madrid at the majestic Camp Nou on Saturday. Considering the many difficult moments on and off the pitch that the Blaugranas have been forced to endure this season, it is clear that such a unique opportunity must be grabbed with both hands.
The many disappointing performances at crucial stages of the year must be forgotten, or, at least, conveniently ignored until the domestic league campaign is well and truly over. The imperative need to rebuild the team is undeniable but, for the next few days, all Cules must put their feelings about next year aside and focus on the job in hand.
Scoring one more goal than Los Colchoneros in their next 90 minutes of football is all that separates Barcelona from their 23rd league title. While the Camp Nou crowd have recently expressed their concerns about the performances of key players such as Cesc Fabregas or Dani Alves, the focus must now shift toward supporting the players in what has become the most important match of the 2013-14 season.
Based on the recent clashes between the top two teams in the competition, the truth is that anything can happen. Whilst Barcelona have been unable to beat Diego Simeone's team in any of the five times they have faced each other this season, the Catalans seem to be considered current favourites to win the title based on their invaluable home advantage.
Personally, I expect Atletico to play to their strengths: Relentless pressure off the ball, a well-organised defensive formation and lightning-fast attacking transitions whenever possible. Despite having lost some of their freshness and having collected a couple of terrible results in their last two matches, Simeone's men have enough pride and hunger to carry them through to victory if given the slightest chance.
As far as Barcelona are concerned, it will ultimately come down to whether they can speed their traditional passing game up enough to break into their rivals' back line. Players such as Andres Iniesta, Fabregas, Pedro or Alexis Sanchez must ensure their constant rotations within the Blaugranas' attacking third confuse Atletico's defenders enough to create spaces for either overlapping full-backs or Lionel Messi to drop into.
Another way to break the robust Colchonero back-line would be to mix short- and long-distance shots. One of the major weaknesses in the Barcelona attack this season has, once again, been the excessive dependence on trying to break through the middle via short, quick one-twos that usually involve Messi. Powerful, long-range efforts by either of the forward players, or surprise additions such as Adriano, could ultimately tip the balance in the Catalans' favour or, at least, make the team's attack less predictable.
Having said that, it is obvious that ensuring that Jose Manuel Pinto manages to keep a clean sheet must also be at the very top of Gerardo Martino's priorities. Barca have normally conceded first in their games against Atletico this season and, from that point on, Simeone has normally given his formation an even clearer defensive focus, which the Blaugranas have crashed into time and time again.
Injured players such as Neymar, Gerard Pique or Jordi Alba have rejoined training this week but, ultimately, it is unclear whether they will be fit enough to compete at the required level in the decisive clash against this very physical Atletico side.
In my opinion, Barcelona should start the game with Pinto; Martin Montoya, Marc Bartra, Javier Mascherano, Adriano; Sergio Busquets, Iniesta, Fabregas; Alexis, Messi and Pedro. Let's hope Martino can get his selection right in what could, very possibly, be his last match in charge at the Camp Nou.
Unfortunately, Barca have failed to reach the insanely high expectations that most Cules had at the beginning of the season. However, ending it by retaining the Liga crown despite all the adversity surrounding the club would be a great way to end before the necessary rebuild in the summer.
The Quote: "I think Atletico had a great season in La Liga as well as in Champions League. We made lots of mistakes, but so did Atletico and Real Madrid. We're lucky to be in the last match and having the possibility to win and achieve the title. It has been a difficult season and it would be an important victory. We want to win La Liga and dedicate it to Tito Vilanova" -- Lionel Messi.