Here we go again. Having seen off Real Madrid over two gruelling legs on either side of a league meeting with Barcelona at the Camp Nou, it is time once again for Atletico Madrid to make the trip out to Catalonia for their Copa del Rey quarterfinal first leg.
The Copa has allowed Atleti to gain a modicum of revenge over their city rival for what happened in Lisbon (the less said about that the better), and now it presents a chance to avenge the 3-1 league defeat that Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez & Co. inflicted on them just 10 days ago. Why it has to be over two legs is another question for another day, mind you.
Following Carlo Ancelotti’s suggestion that losing to Atletico might be a blessing in disguise, Diego Simeone scoffed and said, “When I was a lad, I was always taught it was better to go through than go out.”
This kind of mentality has helped the Argentine pick his side up from the depths of despair and recover from losing its star striker last summer to knock the reigning champions and world’s most expensive squad out of the cup over two legs. Now comes the side with a four-time Ballon d’Or winner, Brazil’s captain and a 75 million pound striker up front.
Simeone must decide what he is going to do with his starting XI. Does he gamble, like he did in the first leg against Real Madrid, and give the fringe players their chance? Or should he put out as close to a full team as possible?
It is highly likely he will do the latter given that Saturday sees Los Colchoneros face midtable Rayo Vallecano at home. After all, if they get past Barcelona, the trophy is well within sight.
Jan Oblak will surely keep his place in goal, as he has done in every game in the competition. After a shaky start to life at the Vicente Calderon, conceding goals on five of the first seven shots he faced, the Slovenian looks to be finding his feet and produced a couple of tremendous stops in the first leg against Los Blancos. Having said that, he showed his inexperience as he got nowhere near a cross, allowing Sergio Ramos to head home. While there will be less aerial pressure against Barca, the 22-year-old will have to be at his best if he is to help his side remain in the contest come the return leg.
With Diego Godin suspended for Saturday’s visit of Rayo, it is believed that the Uruguayan will line up at the heart of defence alongside Joao Miranda. The Brazilian recently lost his league place to youngster Jose Maria Gimenez and must look to use every opportunity he has to win it back, starting on Wednesday night.
Juanfran and Guilherme Siqueira, who contained Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale so well at the Bernabeu, will face the unenviable task of repeating the trick on Messi and Neymar this time round. The Brazilian ran rings round Juanfran then last time the sides met, and the right back is bound to be desperate to make amends for some uncharacteristically shoddy defending. Atleti’s fans will hope that Siqueira has a better time of it against Messi than Jesus Gamez did, when the on-song Argentine ran the show from the right.
All of the noise coming out of the Atleti camp indicates that Diego Simeone’s desire to get the attacking quartet of Antoine Griezmann, Arda Turan, Fernando Torres and Mario Mandzukic into the side will have knock-on consequences for captain Gabi, who hasn’t enjoyed the best of times following the Christmas break.
The skipper was hooked on the hour away to Barcelona, and didn’t start in the second leg against Madrid. The man whose place has been almost untouchable during Simeone’s tenure is now looking at the prospect of not being a first choice; the Argentine manager will hope that this omission serves as a wake-up call.
Seen as Gabi’s natural heir to the central midfield berth and captain’s armband, Koke will likely move inside to the position where he has looked most effective this season and will hope to contain the threat that Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets bring.
His partner will be Mario Suarez, who in recent weeks has looked a different player to the one who has been so subdued over the past 12 months. That might be because the transfer window is now open and his agent is openly touting a move away from the club; however, the more romantic Atleti fans hope he has turned the corner on his bad patch and is now repaying his manager’s faith.
With the aforementioned four lining up in attacking positions, all eyes will be on Fernando Torres. After scoring within the first minute in each half to get Atleti to this stage, he has forced his way into the reckoning for a starting berth, and faces a side for which he has become a bit of a bête noire, scoring in seven of his 11 Atletico appearances against Barca (four of which have been away from home), not to mention his last minute strike for Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final.
Repeat the trick on Wednesday night and the whispers of “Torres is back” might just get that little bit louder.
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