League leaders have away goal
9 April ~ That tonight’s Champions League quarter-final second leg between Atlético Madrid and Barcelona is too close to call really is extraordinary. Last week’s first leg at the Camp Nou was a tight game, with Barça as expected having lots of the ball but Atlético making the best chances and then going ahead through Diego Ribas’s 35-yard strike. As the visitors tired some gaps finally began to open up, and Barça deservedly equalised when Neymar converted a superb Andrés Iniesta through-ball. That meant the two clubs have drawn in each of their four meetings this season.
The phenomenal workrate and clever positioning on the field of Atlético coach Diego Simeone’s side have even managed to keep Lionel Messi scoreless in his last five games against Atlético, despite having “the small difference of €400 million [£330m]” in their annual budgets, as Simeone pointed out after last January’s 0-0 in La Liga.
The success of this defensive plan can be seen in the frustration it has evoked in Barça’s playmaker and ideologue Xavi Hernández. “We are a team made to attack and score goals, and are up against a team which is just the opposite,” Xavi said this week. “We must try and get ahead on the scoreboard. We have not done that in any of the four games. We would see then how they react. That could be key to the game.”
Barça need to score if they are to make what would be a record seventh successive Champions League semi-final. But coach Gerardo Martino is still likely to continue his usual big-game approach of packing the midfield with all of Xavi, Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fabregas and Iniesta – in what will be his 500th game for the club. Martino has more worries in defence, where centre-half Marc Bartra, 23, and goalkeeper Jose Pinto, 38, are set to replace the injured Gerard Pique and Victor Valdes.
Bartra and Pinto could have things particularly difficult should Atlético’s rampaging frontman Diego Costa recover from a thigh problem in time. The home side will also have the support of an increasingly confident 55,000 Calderón crowd, with older fans this week recalling past fabled European nights such as the 2-0 win over Celtic in 1974, the last time their side made European Cup's last four.
Simeone's side also currently top the La Liga table with just six games remaining, close to a first championship title since 1995-96 when "El Cholo" was a player. Colchoneros current midfielder Koke, 22, has admitted that he and his team-mates know they are close to something special. “Sometimes when you are at home you stop to think and you say ‘We are doing something big here’,” Koke said. “We are not feeling any vertigo. It is very nice, but it is not over yet. We must keep along this line. The team is doing something incredible.” It's not hard to see why many neutrals – inside and outside Spain - will be cheering on Atlético tonight. Dermot Corrigan