La Primera Division’s game of the week takes place at the Vicente Calderon, where los Colchoneros meet la Blaugrana...
Barcelona only lost one game over the course of last season in La Primera Division – away at Atletico Madrid – and after slipping to a shock defeat to Hercules last weekend, they are expected to be fully stretched as they return to the scene of 2009-10’s only reverse.
Los Colchoneros have won widespread praise for the start they’ve made to their Liga campaign. On the opening Monday of the season, just a few days after they’d lifted the European Super Cup with a triumph over Inter, Quique Sanchez Flores guided his side to a smashing 4-0 victory over Sporting Gijon to lift them top of the table. That was swiftly followed by a 2-1 triumph over Athletic Bilbao at San Mames – a venue where neither Barca nor Real Madrid won during 2009-10 - last weekend.
But Atleti’s momentum was halted somewhat in midweek as they were surprisingly defeated in the Europa League by Aris in Greece. Matched against a side containing a number of Spaniards eager to impress against an established outfit from their homeland, los Rojiblancos looked flat throughout, and excepting a couple of glaring misses from Diego Costa late in the second half, rarely threatened.
“I don't think we deserved this result, although I have my doubts,” Flores told the media after the game. “There was no control of the situation, we were very vague. We did not suffer at all from their counterattacks, nothing excessive. But a lack of self control that we had meant we never got to create a sense of danger.”
There can be little doubt that the capital city club went into the midweek match considering Barca at the weekend as their main objective, so it will now be a double blow if they fail to beat the Blaugrana on Sunday.
A full scale crisis was nearly on the cards at Camp Nou in midweek. As Barcelona faced Panathinaikos in the Champions League, they were caught out by a long punt forward from the Greek side, and as their defence dozed, Sidney Govou nipped in to give the Shamrock a surprising advantage.
On the back of a 2-0 defeat at the venue by Hercules last weekend in what is one of the greatest shocks result in club football over the last few seasons, it would have been easy for la Blaugrana to panic. Indeed, had Lionel Messi not instantaneously levelled the match, a tough night for the Catalans might have been in order, but their equilibrium was instead restored and Barca played some champagne football as they ran out stunning 5-1 winners.
“We needed to have a good feeling again and the team has played a very complete match,” Andres Iniesta told Marca after the midweek encounter. “We have started the league well and we have not stopped tonight, despite the chance our opponent got after 20 minutes.”
On Thursday, Iniesta looked forward to the clash with Atletico, confessing it is a fixture that Barca will certainly not take lightly. “Last year [this] was the only match we lost,” he remembered. “They are historically a rival who make us uncomfortable and we have to try and make things right and break that slump. We try to do business as usual because we cannot play any other way.
“The reality is that Atletico Madrid have won the UEFA Super Cup, won their first two league game, and have important players who are in good form. It will be difficult.”
Barca face undoubtedly their stiffest challenge of the season to date on Sunday, yet these are the kind of clashes Pep Guardiola’s side tend to rouse themselves for most impressively.
Quique Sanchez Flores made some changes to his squad in midweek but did not excessively rotate his side. Those regular players omitted against Aris, such as Jose Antonio Reyes, will be restored.
Sergio Aguero wasn’t risked in Greece after picking up an injury against Athletic Bilbao but should return, though Tomas Ujfalusi probably won’t play.
Probable Starting XI: De Gea; Perea, Godin, Dominguez, Lopez; Reyes, Assuncao, Raul Garcia, Simao; Forlan, Aguero
Jeffren Suarez has been back training with the main group, but he’s not ready for first team action yet. Gerard Pique was nursing a head injury and didn’t train on Wednesday, while Andres Iniesta worked out separately, but both should be back in the fold for the weekend.
Pep Guardiola gave his men the day off on Thursday.
Probable Starting XI: Valdes; Dani Alves, Puyol, Pique, Maxwell; Xavi, Mascherano, Iniesta; Messi, Villa, Pedro