x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Atletico wary of Messi effect

Barcelona entertain Atletico Madrid tonight in the Primera Liga's biggest game of the season so far.

Lionel Messi has plenty of reasons to smile after signing a contract extension until 2016.
Lionel Messi has plenty of reasons to smile after signing a contract extension until 2016.

Barcelona entertain Atletico Madrid tonight in the Primera Liga's biggest game of the season so far. The equivalent fixture last year was one of the most significant in Spain, a key step in Barca's progression under new coach Pep Guardiola. It came just six weeks into the new season, when some held reservations about Guardiola's appointment after a slow league start.

Those concerns were emphatically dispelled as Barca surged into a three-goal lead inside eight minutes and five goals inside 25 on the way to a 6-1 victory. Lionel Messi completely overshadowed his Argentinian teammate Sergio Aguero, constantly drawing Atletico players out of position, allowing Barca's other attackers and midfielders to flood into the space and punish Atletico. Atletico finished last season strongly enough to qualify for the Champions League, but internal feuding and fan discontent is affecting their performances this season, with just one point from their first two games.

"It would be a lie to say this situation isn't affecting us," said defender Luis Perea. "The only way for us to put it right is by winning." Teammate Maxi Rodriguez agrees. "Results haven't been as expected, but it has not all been bad. We achieved our goal of progressing through the Champions League qualifying round," he said. "We haven't won in the league and we're down because of that, but we have to lift our heads, be confident and beat Barca. Winning would be very good for us mentally and we're always more motivated against great teams."

Victory at Camp Nou is improbable, but Atletico were the last team to beat a full strength Barca side in the league, their 4-3 victory at the Vicente Calderon in March one of the few stumbles in Barca's historic treble winning season. Playing away from their troubled home may work to their advantage, though they remain clear underdogs. Both teams drew 0-0 midweek in the Champions League, but Barca's performance at the San Siro against Inter Milan was far superior to Atletico's at home to APOEL Nicosia.

Barca dominated, with Guardiola opining with dismissive accuracy: "It's never easy when there are nine players in the goal area." Messi agreed, adding: "We should have won. A draw is not a bad result, but Inter just waited at the back." Messi played against several of Inter's Brazilian players and while the relationship between Brazil and Argentina is not always the most convivial, Brazil legend Pele thinks that Messi should be crowned Fifa World Player of the Year for 2009.

"After Ronaldinho, Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo, now is the turn of Messi," Pele said. Messi has signed a new contract with the Catalans which will keep him at the Camp Nou until 2016. His current deal, signed in late 2005, expires in 2014 and the new terms establish him as Barca's best paid player. "He's the best player in the world and one of the best in football history," Barca president Joan Laporta said. "He's content here at Barca and that's why he's playing the way he is."

Barca's main rivals and Atletico's grander neighbours Real Madrid are at home to a pointless and goalless Xerez side tomorrow. The Andalusians, appearing in the Primera Liga for the first time in their 62-year history, have an annual budget of ?9 million (Dh48.6m), the lowest in the league and a minuscule amount compared to Madrid's ?420m. "With the names they have at Real Madrid this is going to be a very different game for us," said Xerez's Argentinian defender Leandro. "It would be great to get a point ... a miracle."

Xerez are favourites to be relegated, though they will aim to exploit Madrid's weakness at set pieces. "If you look at the four goals we have conceded it's true you could say we are a disaster at dead-ball situations," admitted Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas. "But it is still early days to be reading too much into this." Real have scored 11 times in their three victories in the Premira Liga and Champions League so far, conceding one goal from open play, one from the penalty spot, one from a corner and the other at a free kick.

amitten@thenational.ae Barcelona v Atletico Madrid, KO 12am, Al Jazeera +2