Atletico ready to test Barca's mettle after Clasico defeat
Published 05/04/2016 | 02:30
No team has retained the European Cup since 1990 but no reigning champions have had a better chance than Barcelona.
They are the best team in the world, powered by the three best forwards, and have played some football this season unlike anything ever seen before.
Everything is in place, then, for Barcelona to do what they could not in 2010 or 2012 - win the Champions League for a second year in a row.
And yet, in last Saturday's El Clasico against Real Madrid at the Nou Camp, they looked sluggish, slow and vulnerable, and were well beaten 2-1.
Just three days on from that setback, they host Atletico Madrid tonight in the first leg of their quarter-final.
The question for that game, and for the rest of the season, is whether the defeat by Real was a blip or an omen for Luis Enrique's side.
"This game is forgotten already," the Barcelona coach said on Saturday night, hoping to move on as quickly as possible.
Of course, the defeat to Real Madrid stands out so much because it was so unexpected. It ended a 39-game all-competition unbeaten run stretching all the way back to a 2-1 loss at Sevilla six months before.
No team is perfect and Barcelona were up against a highly motivated and talented opposition desperate to make up for the last few years of humiliations.
And, yet, there was enough in the Barcelona performance to prompt real worries, the first in some time, about whether they can repeat in 2016 what they did in 2015.
They played with an unfortunate combination of tiredness and complacency - a problem that often afflicts teams who have won too much.
Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez all looked tired following their long trips to and back from South America to play international football.
Barcelona must know that, if they play like that tonight, their procession to the Milan final will be stopped.
Atletico Madrid are the great disrupters of European football, a team who can take the opposition where they do not want to go.
Their record against Barcelona, it must be said, is worse than most. They have taken just two points from their last 12 La Liga games against them.
But these two sides met at this stage of this competition two years ago. Barcelona could manage only a 1-1 draw at home and, when they lost 1-0 at the Vicente Calderon in the second leg, they were eliminated.
Atletico were the best team in Europe that season. They won La Liga, only to be turned over in extra-time of the Champions League final by Real Madrid. Being the best, then, is no guarantee of being on top at the very end.
Last season Barcelona were both, but this term they will need to sharpen up if they are to retain their crown.
Gerard Pique, their goalscorer against last Saturday, was wheeled out for the press duties yesterday and his most notable line was a thinly veiled dig at Real Madrid for the joy which they derived from a game that is unlikely to have a significant impact on their finishing position this term.
He added that tonight's opponents deserve to be regarded as Barca's main challengers at the moment because of their performances across the season.
"For Barcelona, it used to save our seasons beating Madrid. Now the roles have switched," said Pique.
"Atletico are having a great season. They're the second team in Spain and this match will be more difficult than last Saturday.
"But in the end it depends on us, that we have the ball, the support of the fans. If everything comes together, we're unstoppable."
The 29-year-old insisted that the Barca dressing room will respond in the right way to a setback which has left them in the unusual position of having a point to prove.
"We are crazily desperate to play (this game)," he continued "We were 39 games without a defeat and sometimes it's just your turn. We want to show why we have won everything more than once and we are determined to do it again."
Barca coach Luis Enrique echoed those thoughts, saying: "Atletico Madrid are a top-level team. That's why they are where they are competing with Barca and Madrid despite not having the financial resources."
Barca will be without injured defenders Jeremy Mathieu, Aleix Vidal and Adriano for tonight's match, which could see Lionel Messi reach 500 career goals. The Argentina ace is currently on 499 for club and country.
Atletico will be determined to ensure that does not happen and they have been boosted by the return to fitness of key centre-back Diego Godin, who has missed their last two games with a hamstring injury.
Barcelona v Atletico Madrid
Live, TV3 / BT Sport Europe, 7.45
Independent News Service