After an unprecedented midseason World Cup, many fans and pundits wondered out loud how club teams would look after the break. The results, unshockingly, have been quite mixed. Atletico Madrid, who had won exactly half of their league matches before the pause, have picked up a pair of 2-0 wins, albeit against very soft competition. Meanwhile Barcelona, who were on top of the league before sending their players off for international duty, stumbled to a booking-laden 1-1 derby draw in the league, before taking 120 minutes to dispatch of a third-division side in the Copa del Rey. Let’s take a look at the odds and make some picks for one of the most intriguing club matches since the December re-start.
Barcelona vs. Atletico Madrid Odds
Despite being the hosts for this one, Atletico Madrid are underdogs with a moneyline of +200. Visiting Barcelona are pegged at +130, while the draw wager is +230. For a goalscoring total of 2.5, the over and under are exactly even; the line for either one is -110.
Barcelona vs. Atletico Madrid Prediction & Pick
After drawing 0-0 on opening day against promotion side Rayo Vallecano, Barça went on a tear and did not look back- they won 12 of their next 13 league games, only losing a Clasico matchup to Real Madrid at the Bernabéu. But in their first game after the World Cup break, they stumbled and drew at home against crosstown rivals Espanyol. Perhaps worse yet, despite the fact that they took home the win eventually, was their Copa del Rey match; against third-division Intercity, a club that did not exist until 2017, Barça fought to a 3-3 draw in regulation before finally gaining and retaining a lead in overtime. So suffice it to say, they’re not in the best form, and to make matters worse, striker Robert Lewandowski’s suspension, for allegedly gesturing at a referee after receiving two first-half yellow cards against Osasuna in November, has been upheld, and he will not play against Atletico.
Conversely, Los Colchoneros have struggled through the early stages of this season, but are perhaps gaining some footing following the international break. Youngster João Félix may be on the way out at some point this month or over the summer, but he’s carried his solid World Cup form back to Madrid, as he’s scored in both of the team’s games since the return of club football. Antoine Griezmann has also continued to have a quietly excellent season for Atleti, after finally regaining some recognition for his strong performances for France in Qatar. The clean-sheet wins against last-place and second-division sides are nice- as Barça showed us against Intercity and Rayo, they’re no guarantees- but this will be the first test of Atletico’s mettle in some time. It’s a doable task, especially in front of a high-energy home crowd, but still a daunting one.
The outcome is a genuinely tough call for this match. Barça are pretty clearly the better side, and they really need the points- they’re level on points with Real Madrid and while their goal difference is better, Los Blancos currently hold the head-to-head tiebreaker, which will be reflected on the table once the teams have played each other twice. But, Atletico are in better form, playing at home, and will not be missing their top goalscorer. Truly, Lewandowski will be missed; his 13 league goals are a universe ahead of the second-highest tally on the team, Ousmane Dembélé’s 4. It’ll be tough to adjust on the fly and find goals in the first game of his suspension, on the road against an Atleti defense that, while it has struggled more than usual, is pretty solid.
That being said, Barça are a tough nut to crack as well- their defensive record is outstanding, having conceded only 6 goals in 15 league matches thus far. With all of that being said, it’s not hard to see where I’m building to with the first half of my projection; goals will be at an extreme premium, and I think the level odds for over and under 2.5 are ludicrous, the under is outstanding value and my emphatic pick. My moneyline call is somewhat less enthusiastic, but I’m going with the draw; at +230 it’s great value, as the longest odds, with how even this matchup could be. If you want a bit less risky of a proposition, consider the Atleti/Tie double chance at -170, but I really don’t expect a winner in this one- it’s not hard to imagine Atletico doing a trademark bus-park and playing for the draw, especially if they find an early goal.
Barcelona Attack vs. Atletico Defense
As I’ve mentioned already, Lewandowski has been the definitive centerpiece of Barça’s attack this year, but will be unavailable this weekend. He could be replaced by either one of Ferran Torres, a promising young player who has struggled so far to the tune of just 2 goals in 14 La Liga appearances this season, or Memphis Depay, who has missed much of the year with an injury but contributed for the Netherlands at the World Cup, and for Barcelona in the Copa del Rey match. Memphis is probably a better fit up top, but it’s worth wondering if they’d opt for a player who’s spent so little time with the squad this season. On the wing, there are a few more options; young star Ansu Fati and Dembélé, who was one of the bright spots against Intercity, both join Lewandowski in the top-3 on the team for both goals and assists, so you’d imagine that either or both could be in the mix to start against Atleti. Raphina is an option as well, and if he doesn’t start up top, Memphis has put in some time at left wing as well. Of course, one or more of whoever in this group misses the lineup is immediately a prime candidate to come on as a sub later on, which could prove incredibly influential in what should be a taxing effort of a match.
For years, the best Atletico teams have been centered around a stout defense, one that could seemingly withstand any amount of possession and pummeling from the opposing side. This year, that has not been the case, which makes sense considering this is not one of the better Atleti sides of the Simeone era. The team runs a 3-5-2 formation, meaning that while there’s technically a back three, the two outside players in the midfield 5 have a lot of defensive responsibility and essentially serve as fullbacks, but often with a lot of freedom to go forward. The three central defenders are the veteran Stefan Savic, José María Gímenez, fresh off of a World Cup appearance with Uruguay, and Mario Hermoso, who will not be available after being sent off against Elche. Axel Witsel, normally a midfielder, has been deployed on the back line and could fill in for Hermoso; the same approach could also be taken with Saúl Ñíguez. Spurs loanee Sergio Reguilón, more of a fullback, could also fill in if the lineup gets reshuffled a bit. Speaking of fullbacks, the pseudo-outside backs, those outer midfielders, are most likely to be Yannick Carrasco on the left and Marcos Llorente on the right, although World Champion Nahuel Molina could be a factor. This has not been a trademark Atleti defense, but they have plenty of depth and talent, and a big home match like this could surely be a launching pad to get them back on track.
The Midfield Battle
For Barcelona, possession is going to be the name of the game. Without their primary, some might say sole, true goalscoring threat, the key to getting the ball in the back of the net is going to be volume of chances, and holding onto the ball is the only way to accomplish that. Luckily for them, that’s how they like to play; they have one of the best ball-controlling midfield groups in the World. The anchor is Frenkie de Jong, who I simply can’t say enough good things about, which you’ll surely recall if you checked out my coverage of the World Cup. He’s one of the very best passers in the whole World, and in my opinion, the team’s best player, even with Lewandowski active. He’s joined by the meteorically-rising star duo of Gpanish youngsters, Pedri and Gavi. These players are all individually excellent, and they link up together very well. Of course, the veteran Sergio Busquets is still an option, and a great one at that; if he doesn’t start, he’s still quite likely to play significant minutes, and he is just about the archetype of the modern possession-minded midfielder, a true clinician at the base of the midfield.
They’ll be going up against an Atleti midfield that is more of a moving target. Antoine Griezmann is probably the team’s best player, and often starts in central midfield or as a CAM, but could also be deployed as a forward. If he is part of the midfield, he’ll be the centerpiece; his 5 league goals are one off of the team lead, and his 5 assists have him on top amongst Atleti players. I mentioned Witsel as a potential Hermoso replacement, but if that doesn’t end up happening, expect the Belgium international to start in midfield- once again, Saúl Ñíguez is also a candidate to play in a similar role, although less of a sure shot than Witsel. Atleti veteran Koke remains in the mix, as he continues to put in solid performances either as a starter or off of the bench. Rodrigo De Paul is an excellent contributor for the club, but it’s unclear whether or not he’s going to play; he hasn’t been in the squad since the World Cup, in which of course he had a major role for the champion Argentina side. Lastly, Geoffrey Kondogbia has been a major factor this season, as he’s able to fill out the pivotal position in the center of the 5-man midfield. It’s a crowded group if everyone’s available, and picking the right starters and subs will be one of Simeone’s most important decisions as his side looks to pick up a huge win this Sunday.