Barcelona and Atletico Madrid are set for another titanic clash in the UEFA Champions League, and the form and fitness of Lionel Messi will be the key to Barcelona breaking down Atletico Madrid's staunch defense and moving onto the semi-finals.
Atletico hold the away-goal advantage due to their securing a nervy 1-1 draw at the Camp Nou, but Barcelona, with a fully functional Messi, are still a good bet to move on with a victory in Madrid.
Barcelona has played Atletico Madrid four times this season; twice in the Spanish Super Cup, once in league play and once in the aforementioned Champions League tie. All four games have ended in a draw. For two teams battling it out for Champions League supremacy and the La Liga crown, there have been very little fireworks.
Despite dominating possession and consistently out-shooting Madrid, Barcelona have managed just two goals in those games—both from Neymar—and their chances have been lacking their usual quality.
|Barcelona Stats vs. Atletico Madrid, 2013-2014 Season|
|Date||Result||Goal Scorer||Possession||Total Shots||Shots on Target|
Possession and shots on target don't seem to matter much when it comes to breaking down Madrid, so the key lies with their star player's ability to make the most of his chances. Messi played the full 90 in two of those contests, but he was subbed out at the half on August 21 and missed the first half on January 11 due his lack of fitness recovering from a hamstring injury.
But it is April now, and Messi is fully fit and playing with confidence thanks to the two goals he slotted away in Barcelona's 3-1 victory over the weekend against Real Betis. Barcelona's best shooting performance was April 1, a game in which Messi played a key role and Atletico Madrid could only muster six shots to Barca's 19.
Barcelona's coach Gerardo Martino told ESPN's Dermot Corrigan he expects Messi to be a decisive player in the contest.
Via Corrigan: "It is clear that Leo is used to scoring in almost every game," Martino said. "So when he does not score for some games against someone it calls your attention. We want him to be decisive, and he can do that in many ways, not just by scoring goals."
It is this decisiveness and ability to make incisive runs that allow Messi to make defenders look like they are slogging through quicksand. Messi, despite the time off due to injuries and his drought against Madrid, still has an impressive goalscoring record this season.
Madrid's willingness to sit back and park 10 men in front of rangy goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois works against Barca's possession-oriented style, as they get stuck pinging the ball around the midfield without the necessary direct approach.
As you can see from Messi's individual play against Madrid in January, he started the majority of his runs from the center of midfield. Always able to shake a defender or two, Madrid defenders eventually converged and forced him into a turnover or unwanted pass. Messi was still shaking off the rust accumulated from his spell on the sidelines and at that point in time was unable to unlock the defense.
According to Ben Hayward of Goal.com, Barcelona have shown in training they may play Messi on the right side against Madrid, a departure from the tactics in the above video and Messi's usual false-nine role. This would allow Messi to maneuver in space and take on defenders in more one-on-one situations.
This also puts immense pressure on Madrid since they will have to deal with Neymar, the only proven goalscoring threat in their contests, rampaging down the left side. This will stretch the back line and allow Barcelona's midfield maestros Xavi and Iniesta to exploit gaps in the middle that may not have existed without a threat down both sidelines.
Eventually, with their usual amount of possession, Barcelona and Messi will have an opportunity to exploit whatever fissure opens up between the Madrid defenders.
Whether or not Messi is able to slot away a goal or conjure up a magical pass for another teammate to pounce on remains to be seen but a fully fit Messi will always have his chances.