Meetings between La Liga’s “big three” are always captivating affairs. Set against the backdrop of the current Catalan drive for independence, Saturdays clash between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid is particularly a loaded affair.
Stepping away from politics, and looking at the game from a purely soccer POV, we are talking about a clash between two of the best teams in Europe at the moment.
Barcelona sit top of the table in Spain, six points clear of fourth-placed Atletico, and five clear of second-place Sevilla. For those of you keeping score at home, Real Madrid are in fifth, one point below Atleti. Although it’s still early(ish), Barça have made a perfect start to the season and look as if they’ll be difficult to catch.
Having singlehandedly hauled Argentina into the World Cup earlier this week, Lionel Messi is in resplendent form, for club and country. The the four-time Ballon d’Or winner leads the league with 9 goals in seven games. The Argentine maestro is rightfully drawing accolades for restoring Barcelona’s standing as the best team in Europe, particularly following the departure of teammate Neymar to PSG.
But Barça coach, Ernesto Valverde must also be credited for restoring balance to a team that in recent seasons, had become overly reliant on the attacking prowess of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez. With Neymar gone, and Suarez going through a bit of a lean spill, the emphasis has returned to midfield for the Blaugrana. There is a cohesiveness about this team that had been missing under Luis Enrique.
That said, the games Barça have won this season have been against relatively low-watt opposition. Saturday’s trip to the Wanda Metropolitano will mark the first time they’ve met one of Spain’s other big teams.
Atletico are just one of a pack of chasing teams that in addition to Sevilla and Real, also includes Valencia. Winning at home Saturday would slash Barça’s lead to three points and open up the field at the top of the table. Like Barcelona, Atleti are undefeated this season and have won all their home fixtures. But while Barça’s attack is being carried by the individual brilliance of Messi, Atletico’s goals have been a committee effort. Yannick Carrasco, Angel Correa, Antoine Griezmann and Koke have all chipped in with the scoring.
Diego Simeone’s well-drilled defense has only given up four goals this season and has yet to concede at their new stadium. But with Messi back in his pomp, they will surely be tested Saturday. But if there is a team in Spain currently that’s capable of taking a chip out of Barça’s spotless veneer, it’s Atletico Madrid.
Saturday’s clash will be the first time Barça have taken the field since playing in front of an empty stadium in the midst of the contested Catalan independence referendum earlier this month. The game’s political connotations are too blaring to omit. FC Barcelona have long been the embodiment of the Catalan independence movement that only recently has spilled over from the stadium into the streets and into the polling stations.
Atletico meanwhile, are the King of Spain’s team and being a capital club, an embodiment of Spanish national identity to a certain degree.
No tickets for away fans have been allocated for Saturday’s match with Atletico citing “logistical problems” as the reason. Barcelona maintains that none of their supporters will be in attendance, although Atleti also maintains they’ve made no special effort to prevent traveling fans from attending.
Earlier this week we saw Barça defender Gerard Pique, an outspoken proponent of Catalan independence, jeered by fans while on duty for the Spanish national side. The World Cup winner and his teammates could be greeted with a similarly hostile reception at the Metropolitano in front of a packed crowd of amped up Atletico fans. Extra security measures have been put in place in spite of Atletico president Enrique Cerezo’s insistence that the club “just wants to focus on football.”
It all adds an extra layer of tension to an already charged match taking place in a new stadium and a political atmosphere where it’s becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to just “stick to sports.”
Watch Atletico Madrid vs. FC Barcelona, this Saturday October 14 at 2:35 pm ET on BeINSports.