Barcelona’s stars, and Lionel Messi in particular, return from a decisive international break and look to get back into winning ways during one of the tougher portions of this season’s schedule. Away to Atletico Madrid represents the second most difficult league fixture on the schedule, and Barcelona’s first trip to the Wanda Metropolitano could threaten the Blaugrana’s perfect start to the season.
Despite sitting a point above Real Madrid in the La Liga table, Atletico Madrid hasn’t had a robust start to the season. They were two late goals away from losing their opener at Girona, were held scoreless against Valencia and Leganes and have been underwhelming in the Champions League. An away point against Roma isn’t the worst result, but losing at home to Chelsea puts their ticket to the knockout round in slight jeopardy if Roma plays their cards right.
Antoine Griezmann’s red card in the season opener, which earned him a two-game ban, didn’t help Atleti get out to a strong start and the club’s transfer ban has delayed Diego Costa’s arrival until January, but otherwise this is virtually the same team Diego Simeone had at his disposal last season. And as long as Simeone is in charge, Atletico will have the same structure, character and style as usual.
Barcelona can expect a typical cagey affair on Saturday, but they did have success at the Calderon last season, winning 2-1 in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinal and 2-1 again in league play. The Blaugrana attack has been struggling to create chances of late, however, with Ousmane Dembélé out of action and Luis Suarez out of form. Lionel Messi has basically been his team’s only form of attack for club and for country, and he will need more help than he has been getting if Barcelona is to pick up all three points.
Starting XI: Marc Andre ter Stegen, Nelson Semedo, Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, Sergi Roberto, Gerard Deulofeu, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez
Subs: Jasper Cillessen, Denis Suarez, Iniesta, Javier Mascherano, Paulinho, Lucas Digne, Andre Gomes
Up front I think Gerard Deulofeu should make his return from the doghouse and start alongside Messi and Suarez, who both are coming off of fantastic performances that helped get their national teams into the World Cup. Denis Suarez could also start in the forward line, but I think Ernesto Valverde has to give Deulofeu chances in games like this to see if he will be worth playing once Dembélé returns.
Andres Iniesta missed the international break with a hamstring injury that he suffered against Las Palmas, and though he has been cleared to play, I would keep him on the bench in this game as a precaution. Sergi Roberto’s industry and ability to push play forward make him a good fit to play against Atletico, and I give him the edge over Paulinho in that department after the latter had an active international break.
Rakitic and Busquets are fit and should be in the lineup for a game of this magnitude. Depending on the flow of the game, inserting Denis Suarez or Andre Gomes to provide a more attacking element makes sense, but I think bringing Paulinho on past the hour mark to help Barcelona see the game out (should they have the lead) is the most likely substitution in the middle of the park.
No surprises in the backline or in net. It wouldn’t be out of character for Valverde to start Roberto at right back and leave Semedo out of the lineup (in fact, I almost half expect that), but I think Semedo has to start getting the nod in big road games so he can continue to gain confidence and experience with the rest of the first-choice backline.
Prediction: Barcelona, 2-1.