Poised on a knife's edge, the pulsating Champions League quarter-final between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona looks certain to go to the wire, although I firmly believe that Tata Martino’s insistence on playing four midfielders makes little sense now when the alternatives are Alexis and mostly Pedro, who did not play a minute in the first leg.
Lining up with Cesc Fabregas, Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta certainly guarantees more control, more possession, but the flip side of that is less depth, and not so much movement off the ball because everyone wants it played to feet.
Not enough players are getting into the box and what we saw at the Camp Nou were a lot of crosses being met with just Neymar at the back post and Lionel Messi trying to get in a header.
We didn’t see enough of Fabregas, enough runs into space in the box, and a wasted Neymar on the right, so we have to ask: Why do Barcelona need four in midfield?
And then, of course, the $64,000 question: Just who isn’t going to make the cut? Should Barcelona start thinking of Xavi being left on the bench for the big games as Iniesta's status and influence on the team keeps growing?
One thing’s for sure, if Martino is going to play four in the middle, he’s going to have to put Neymar to the right (Iniesta goes to the left in their 4-3-3), but in that position he hasn’t got the confidence to go one-on-one with defenders and ends up cutting inside and killing space for the other Barcelona players. He is far more effective on the left and that, of course, is where the goal came from.
Atletico Madrid have a style of play that is naturally defensive and became even more so with the absence of an injured Diego Costa.
The problem is that style of football probably has a lifespan of about 70 minutes, and when Diego Simeone took David Villa off after 69 minutes for Jose Sosa, he effectively elected to finish the match without a striker.
A more structured Barcelona would have exploited the situation better against a team that was effectively running out of legs.
What the Catalans have to rely on then is that little piece of individual magic to get them out of a pickle and it was provided—and not for the first time—by a great ball from Iniesta, followed by a fine finish from Neymar.
Gerard Pique and Costa will be two massive absentees from the second leg, with the striker, in my opinion, the biggest miss of the two. Pique will be out for four weeks and, pending tests, Costa could be out for 10 days, it was suggested on Tuesday night.
Marc Bartra did well when he came on for Pique, but he didn’t have Costa to deal with for long, instead facing a David Villa who had to pull back deep to defend.
Still, it’s safe to assume that had Atletico been offered this result before kick-off, they would have accepted it with relish, and I think they can keep a clean sheet in the return leg to go through, especially with the 12th man that is the Vicente Calderon crowd roaring them on.
We’ll see. I can’t wait.
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