Against Atletico, Barcelona face first real test

Trip to Madrid comes amid po­lit­i­cal ten­sion, writes Andy Mit­ten

The National - News - - SPORT / FOOTBALL -

Barcelona re­turn from the in­ter­na­tional break with their tough­est game of the league sea­son so far, Atletico Madrid away to­mor­row.

It is Barca’s first visit to the new Wanda Metropoli­tano sta­dium in Spain’s cap­i­tal and the re­ac­tion from the 67,000 ca­pac­ity crowd, with no away fans this week for “lo­gis­ti­cal” rea­sons, will be fe­ro­cious.

Po­lit­i­cal events sur­round­ing Cat­alo­nia’s bid for in­de­pen­dence have charged the mood in Spain, with a resur­gence of Span­ish na­tion­al­ism as gov­ern­ments in Madrid and Barcelona fail to agree a way for­ward.

Street protests and counter protests have been com­mon, fam­i­lies and friends have fallen out and the ri­valry will spill over into the sport­ing arena when the two Primera Liga giants meet.

There has never been a short­age of Spain flags flown by Atletico’s Frente ul­tras, but the cur­rent cri­sis is a main­stream one, so ex­pect a sea of Span­ish flags and an­tiCata­lan sen­ti­ment – not that there will be any Barca fans to re­spond.

Barca’s play­ers, most of whom are not Cata­lan, will feel the full force of the in­vec­tive, which even saw Spa­niards crit­i­cis­ing An­dres Ini­esta, the scorer of the win­ning goal in the 2010 World Cup fi­nal, for sug­gest­ing that ne­go­ti­a­tion and dia­logue would not be a bad idea to help the Cata­lan sit­u­a­tion.

Barca were re­lieved this week when Ini­esta signed a new con­tract and he should be fit to play against Atletico.

Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano re­turned by pri­vate jet from their World Cup qual­i­fy­ing ex­ploits with Ar­gentina.

League lead­ers Barca should have no com­plaints about their fix­tures at the start of the sea­son.

They have won all seven league games, hold a five­point lead at the top of the Primera Liga and are seven ahead of Real Madrid. But six of their seven vic­to­ries have come against teams in the bot­tom half of the ta­ble.

Only Real Betis, Barca’s first league op­po­nents at Camp Nou and now sit­ting in sixth place, have been in the top half.

The un­tax­ing sched­ule came at the right time for Ernesto Valverde, for fans were an­gry and im­pa­tient after los­ing Ney­mar and be­ing out­classed by Real Madrid in two do­mes­tic Su­per Cup games.

As each win came, so the push to oust club pres­i­dent Josep Maria Bar­tomeu fiz­zled out.

Barca have not played stun­ningly well and there has been dis­cord with changes be­hind the scenes at di­rec­tor and re­cruit­ment level.

How­ever, there is har­mony among the play­ers.

It has been an im­pres­sive start to the sea­son, but tougher tests are im­mi­nent.

Fol­low­ing the game at fourth-placed Atletico, who re­main un­beaten in the league (though they were de­feated at home to Chelsea in the Uefa Cham­pi­ons League), Barca’s next away match is at Ath­letic Bil­bao be­fore a home game against Sevilla and away fix­tures at Le­ganes, Va­len­cia, Vil­lar­real and Real Madrid be­fore the end of the year.

But first await Atletico and Diego Sime­one, who will be boosted by the ar­rival of Diego Costa and Vi­tolo once the club’s Fifa-im­posed trans­fer ban ends on Jan­uary 1.

That will likely lead to some of Atletico’s sur­feit of at­tack­ing tal­ent, which in­cludes An­toine Griez­mann, An­gel Cor­rea, Lu­ciano Vi­etto, Yan­nick Car­rasco, Fernando Tor­res, Kevin Gameiro and Nico Gai­tan be­ing sold to bal­ance the books.

But that is for the fu­ture. In this week’s tie, much of the at­ten­tion will be on what hap­pens off the pitch.

Barca’s pre­vi­ous game, on the day the con­tro­ver­sial ref­er­en­dum on Cata­lan in­de­pen­dence was held, was played be­hind closed doors at the last minute.

The cere­bral Ger­ard Pique was whis­tled when he played for Spain last week, even though he has never stated a pref­er­ence for Cata­lan in­de­pen­dence.

He is un­likely to get a kind re­cep­tion in Madrid, but it is up to Barca to rise above the melee if they are to main­tain their 100 per cent record.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UAE

© PressReader. All rights reserved.