Atletico v Barcelona: Last Chance Saloon for La Liga
It seems odd to characterize the Atletico Madrid versus Barcelona game on Sunday as a last chance for a competitive Spanish La Liga season, considering that more than half of the season has yet to be played. But that is exactly what it is.
Two weeks ago this blog argued that Atletico Madrid had a chance to earn some big-time respect with a good showing in the Madrid derby. Unfortunately, the Colchoneros laid an egg in a 2-0 whitewashing at the hands of Real. Radamel Falcao was effectively shut down by Sergio Ramos, Pepe and company and the rest of the squad was a no-show for the full 90 minutes.
But then came Falcao’s five-goal showcase this past weekend and the mood, as expected, brightened significantly at the Vicente Calderon. Which leads us to this weekend’s matchup against almighty Barcelona in a battle of the first and second place team in the La Liga standings.
If the Madrid derby was a lost chance for Atletico to announce its arrival in the upper echelon of Europe’s elite teams, then the Barcelona game is a last salvo to throw the Spanish league into a legitimate race. A positive result for Atletico simultaneously keeps Barcelona within reach and likely brings Real Madrid (which faces second-to-last Espanyol at the Santiago Bernabeu) closer to the top two.
As it stands, Barcelona is 11 points ahead of Real and 6 adrift of Atletico. A win by the blaugrana’s would not only put them 9 up on Atletico, but will likely signify the psychological death knell for any aspirations Diego Simeone’s men had to finish in the top two . All the work they put in to the team’s best ever start will be frittered away if they can’t compete with the big two and they will have to concern themselves with securing a Champions League spot for the rest of the season.
For Barcelona, a win will ease any pressure they may feel, leaving Tito Vilanova’s team to concentrate on their silky passing knowing that they have room for a slip up or two. A loss, however, and Vilanova might get his first taste of pressure – something he has yet to face as the face of the historic club.
The table ramifications are only part of the draw for the game. Falcao has consistently been mentioned as among the top three or four players in the world this year, and rightly so. The Colombian is scoring at an almost unprecedented rate, with only the even more impressive showing of Lionel Messi keeping him in the background.
If Falcao can one-up Messi on Sunday, then his value, on the field and in Atletico’s future coffers, will exponentially increase.
It would also provide a sour ending to what has been an unprecedented year for Messi, at least concerning individual accomplishments. Despite breaking all manner of individual marks this, Messi’s team has brought home a light haul of trophies, only the Copa del Rey. A loss in the last big game of the year would be a good reminder that soccer is a team game. Then again, it might just keep him hungry to go on another historic goal binge next year.