Barca trav­els to Madrid amid Cata­lan cri­sis

Manila Times - - FOOTBALL - Oc­to­ber 14, 2017 Pique ‘ad­mirable’ Barcelona cap­tain An­dres Ini­esta AFP

MADRID: The big gest game of the La Liga sea­son so far is shrouded in po­lit­i­cal ten­sion as Barcelona visit Atletico Madrid on Satur­day (Sun­day in Manila) in their first trip to the Span­ish cap­i­tal since a Cata­lan in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum marred by vi­o­lence.

Barca played their last match be­hind closed doors as the Oc­to­ber 1 ref­er­en­dum, deemed il­le­gal by the Span­ish gov­ern­ment, took place amid chaotic scenes as po­lice seized bal­lot pa­pers and clashed with vot­ers leav­ing 92 in­jured, among nearly 900 who sought med­i­cal at­ten­tion.

“It was one of the worst mo­ments we’ve ex­pe­ri­enced,” Barca cap­tain An­dres Ini­esta told Catalunya ra­dio this week. “It was a bit sur­real.”

Ini­esta, 33, signed a first ever “con­tract for life” at Barca last week, a day after call­ing on both sides of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum to ne­go­ti­ate.

How­ever, deep di­vi­sions re­main de­spite Cat­alo­nia pres­i­dent Car­les Puigde­mont’s de­ci­sion to sus­pend the ef­fects of a uni­lat­eral dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence on Tues­day.

“It has reached a point which isn’t good for any­one,” added Ini­esta. “Those in charge have to re­solve it.”

Only 250 tick­ets have been made avail­able to away fans at Atletico’s new 68,000 ca­pac­ity Wanda Metropoli­tano.

How­ever, many Atletico fans have taken to so­cial me­dia to en­cour­age sup­port­ers not to politi­cise the match by wav­ing Span­ish flags by us­ing the hash­tag “our flag is red and white” on Twit­ter. Barcelona de­fender Ger­ard Pique has been out­spo­ken in his call for Cat­alo­nia’s right to self-de­ter­mi­na­tion, although he has never pub­licly backed in­de­pen­dence for the re­gion.

Pique was jeered when play­ing for Spain in Ali­cante last week, but he re­ceived­sup­port­forhiswill­ing­nesstos­peak out from Atletico de­fender Filipe Luis.

“I am a fan of Pique even if at times I don’t agree with what he says,” the Brazil­ian told El Mundo.

“He puts him­self out there, he doesn’t hide be­hind his fame to not say what he thinks.

“It is ad­mirable and I wish more foot­ballers were like him.”

De­spite a series of dis­trac­tions, in­clud­ing the loss of Ney­mar to Paris Saint-Ger­main and calls for Barca pres­i­dent Josep Maria Bar­tomeu to re­sign on top of the Cat­alo­nia cri­sis, Barca have started La Liga with a per- fect record after seven games.

That spec­tac­u­lar form has been thanks to Lionel Messi’s 14 goals in 11 ap­pear­ances for Barca this sea­son, and the five-time World Player of the Year also res­cued Ar­gentina’s floun­der­ing World Cup qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign with a stun­ning hat-trick against Ecuador on Tues­day to en­sure their place in Rus­sia next year.

“Messi is so good he can win La Liga him­self with a medi­ocre team, which isn’t the case,” added Luis.

“Barca have re­mained at the top for so many years thanks to him.”

Atletico have yet to beat Barca in 11 La Liga meet­ings since Diego Sime­one took charge in 2011.

How­ever, Barca are of­ten vul­ner­a­ble im­me­di­ately after an in­ter­na­tional break with the likes of Messi and Luis Suarez only re­turn­ing to train­ing in Barcelona on Fri­day.

“We are com­ing from the na­tional team and they are an op­po­nent that de­mands 200 per­cent from you,” added Ini­esta.

“If we are not at the level re­quired, we don’t stand a chance.”

Ini­esta is, though, ex­pected to be fit after miss­ing Spain’s fi­nal World Cup qual­i­fiers with a ham­string strain.

Real Madrid are seven points adrift of Barca, but can close the gap at the top ear­lieronSatur­day­when­they­trav­el­toGetafe.

How­ever, Real coach Zine­dine Zi­dane will have to cope with­out the in­jured Gareth Bale, Key­lor Navas, Dani Car­va­jal and Ma­teo Ko­vacic.

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