Out-of-form Barca look to bounce back against Atletico
Published 13/04/2016 | 02:30
Twelve days ago it looked as if no-one would ever have a better chance to become the first team to retain the European Cup than Barcelona.
Running away with La Liga, inspired by the three best players in the world - who somehow made each other even better than they would otherwise be - they were threatening to do what even the great Pep Guardiola sides could not.
From the Club World Cup in Japan last December, to their 3-1 defeat of Arsenal last month, they won 22, drew two and lost none of 24 competitive games.
And yet somehow in the last few weeks the wheels of this juggernaut have come off.
First Barcelona drew 2-2 at Villarreal, no drama in itself. Then they were beaten 2-1 at home by Real Madrid, a defeat that relaunched the title race. Then, last Saturday, they managed to lose 1-0 at mid-table Real Sociedad.
One point from three games is their worst league run since May 2009, when Guardiola's side already had the title won and were preparing for their Champions League final with Manchester United.
Amid this bad run Barcelona hosted Atletico Madrid in their Champions League quarter-final first leg. They were 1-0 down and short of answers when Fernando Torres was sent off. Although they turned the game around to win 2-1 it did nothing to stop the questions about whether this team has lost some of its edge.
Although Barcelona take the lead to the Vicente Calderon tonight, 2-1 is the most even scoreline, and they will be wary of the fact that Atletico will play for a tight 1-0 win that will send them through.
It has escaped no-one's attention in Spain that Luis Enrique's Barcelona have won all seven of their games against Atletico, over this season and the last one. Atletico know how to make life difficult, but they do not know how to beat this Barcelona side, not quite yet.
Barca midfielder Ivan Rakitic believes his team-mates can rise to the challenge once again.
"We will try to look forward and forget (the Sociedad) match," he said. "We are all united like a big family. We have to stick with this mentality."
Barcelona will be without midfielder Rafinha and defender Thomas Vermaelen. Brazilian Rafinha made his return from seven months out after a serious knee injury in the first leg and then started against Sociedad only to head off at half-time with a thigh problem.
On a brighter note, Gerard Pique, is expected to shake off a hip problem. © Independent News Service.
Atletico v Barcelona, Live, RTE 2/BT Sport, 7.45