Opinion

Lionel Messi must return to his best for Barça to overcome Atlético Madrid

The second leg of Barcelona’s Champions League match-up with Atletico Madrid doesn’t project to be an aesthetically pleasing affair

Lionel Messi must return to his best for Barça to overcome Atlético Madrid
Lionel Messi must return to his best for Barça to overcome Atlético Madrid

The second leg of Barcelona’s Champions League match-up with Atletico Madrid doesn’t project to be an aesthetically pleasing affair

Messi training
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The second leg of Barcelona’s Champions League match-up with Atletico Madrid doesn’t project to be an aesthetically pleasing affair. Both teams are close to desperate for not only a win, but a game in which they play well. 

If the first leg is any indication, or any game where Atletico Madrid has been under the direction of Diego Simeone for that matter, there will be plenty of fouls and the referees will be constantly involved. Regardless of Atletico’s rough and tough defensive game-plan, Barcelona would prefer to decide the match early with an away goal or two, as their 2-1 aggregate lead isn’t enough cushion for Cules to sleep easy just yet.

Since the recent international break, Barcelona’s big three hasn’t been at their best. Luis Suarez has found the back of the net, including two goals last week against Atletico Madrid at the Camp Nou, but his partners up top haven’t been as fortunate. Neymar isn’t having trouble finding open spaces and places to shoot, but his finishing touch hasn’t returned from international duty.

As for Lionel Messi, it’s been four matches since he scored a goal. Tactically, his positioning has changed from the right wing to a spot in the middle behind Suarez and Neymar. This allows the diminutive forward to touch the ball more often, though it also makes Messi more of a midfielder than a forward. 

With the end of the season so close and each match having a profound effect on trophies, Luis Enrique may have to commit to either his new experiment or quickly go back to the way things were with his offensive trident leading the attack with Messi on the right side. The Argentine is still searching for his 500th career goal, and sending Barcelona into the semi-finals and barreling towards their second straight Champions League trophy could be a good occasion for such an accomplishment.

Barcelona are struggling more in the last few weeks than they have all season. The offense isn’t clicking and Messi and company have lost two of their last three games. With just one win in their last four matches, the unbeaten streak that spanned 39 games seems like a distant memory in terms of the team’s form. 

Yet for all of Barcelona’s recent highly-publicized struggles, Atletico haven’t been much better. They have lost twice in their last four matches, allowing an average of 2.5 goals per game. Their recent form at home has been good, however, having won five of their last six with the other result being a draw. Nevertheless, the Catalans may take solace in the fact that Luis Enrique is seven for seven against Atletico and he should be able to trot out his favored starting line-up.

Meanwhile, Atletico will be without Fernando Torres, who received his marching orders in the first leg after two yellow cards and a goal. The team from the capital still has plenty of talent up top starting with Antoine Griezmann, but another one of Yannick Carrasco, Angel Correa or Luciano Vietto may need to have a sizeable impact to give the home team a chance.

Diego Simeone continues to shape Atletico in his image. He has transitioned the La Liga-winning side that contained David Villa, Mario Suarez and Raul Garcia into a youthful, hungry unit highlighted by Koke, Saul Niguez and the aforementioned Griezmann. Simeone creates habits in his players that incorporate staunch defensive traits and constant positional discipline.

As Barcelona is learning from their latest Atletico signing Arda Turan, even nine months of training aren’t enough to break some of the habits instilled in players in their time at the Vicente Calderon. For the Turkish midfielder, a quality performance as a substitute may be his best-case scenario against his former club, but it is a scenario he certainly must be longing for after struggling to add many goals and assists to Barcelona’s cause this campaign.

Barcelona would do best to score early in the contest. If a goal isn’t on the books in the first act of the match, Barcelona would like to dictate the style of play at the very least. Atletico did not allow their Catalan opponents such a luxury in the first leg until after halftime, when they had already captured a goal and a red card to Torres.

Injuries to Jeremy Mathieu, Adriano and Aleix Vidal may have Barcelona feeling like they don’t have much defensive depth on the bench, but Sergi Roberto can play either outside position and Marc Bartra should be trusted in the middle in the case that Gerard Pique or Javier Mascherano need relief. 

While this version of Barcelona has proven that they are not dependent of Messi alone, Luis Enrique will hope that the Argentinean No.10 has answered any questions from the last few games to take care of business in Madrid.

By Dan Hilton, columnist at Barcablog. Follow him on Twitter @HiltonD13