It has been a strange season in La Liga. The top teams have repeatedly dropped points, and none have seemed convincing.
Barcelona are top on 24 points but they lead Sevilla, Atletico Madrid and Alaves by just one point. Even Real Madrid, whose poor start – which included a 5-1 defeat in El Clasico – led to Julen Lopetegui’s dismissal, are just four points back in sixth.
No team appears able to capitalise on the deficiencies of their rivals. And the narrow margins in the league thus far make this weekend’s clash between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona all the more important.
Our friends at Football Whispers take a look at Saturday night’s potentially decisive top of the table meeting.
On the face of it, these two teams could hardly be more different. Barcelona have, by some margin, the best attacking record in the division. They have scored 34 goals in 12 games, and that prolific rate has shown no signs of slowing up. Lionel Messi is back from injury now, too, a daunting prospect for Diego Simeone and his players.
But Atletico will be encouraged by Barcelona’s vulnerabilities at the back. They have conceded 18 goals and have looked worryingly frail defensively. Four goals were shipped in their last outing, a 4-3 home defeat against Real Betis. It is an issue Ernesto Valverde will need to address.
Atletico, meanwhile, have been typically sturdy in defence. They have let in only eight goals – ten fewer than Barcelona – and kept six clean sheets. This is no surprise. It is rare that Simeone’s side are not the best defensive unit in La Liga.
This, then, is a meeting of two opposites: the reckless attackers against the conservative defenders. Or, at least, that is how it appears. Atletico, at home, will not be targeting a draw. They will have taken note of Barcelona’s struggles and will be aiming to move above them into first place. Make no mistake: Atletico, on the basis of what we have seen so far, have a strong chance of winning the title this season.
Do not expect them to approach Saturday’s game any differently, though. They will allow Barcelona possession, remain in a compact shape, and look to spring attacks on the break.
Valverde’s side average the most possession per game of any team in the league (67 per cent), so they should be expected to control the ball. Atletico average marginally over 50 per cent possession per game, but are often willing to concede the majority of the ball against top teams, even at home.
The hosts will know, too, that they must be more economical in front of goal than Barcelona. Atletico have, so far this season, created an average of 1.33 big chances per game, compared with Barcelona’s 3.0. They also take significantly fewer shots: Atletico average 11.58 per 90 minutes, and Barcelona 17.0.
For both teams, it will be a case of highlighting the other’s weaknesses. Atletico will no doubt be aware, for example, of Barcelona’s difficulties in aerial battles. The Blaugrana have won just 20.5 of their aerial duels per 90, and made 5.5 headed clearances per game. Both of these totals are the lowest in the division.
Valverde’s side rarely cross the ball in attack, too. Their record of 2.58 accurate crosses per game is the worst in La Liga. This will allow Atletico to defend in a narrower shape, content to allow Barcelona the ball in wide areas in the knowledge that they will rarely threaten.
This is an intriguing contest in many ways. Both teams are almost the antithesis of each other. There are few similarities in approach and it is difficult to predict the outcome, particularly given the inconsistency of results in La Liga this season. What is clear is that victory for either side could be crucial in the title race.
Barcelona could welcome back Philippe Coutinho, who has been absent with an injury, while Ivan Rakitic is out. Messi, of course, will play after scoring twice on his return against Betis. For Atletico, the performances of Antoine Griezmann and Koke will likely prove key.
So far this season, La Liga has raised more questions than answers. It is not clear which team, if any, will eventually establish a gap at the top. The outcome of Saturday night’s game, though, could suggest which of Atletico Madrid and Barcelona is in better shape.
*odds subject to change
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