Top-of-the-table Barcelona, unbeaten in their 21 league games so far this season, go into tonight's match at Atletico Madrid without most of their regular defenders.
Barca's defence down to bare bones
BARCELONA // Top-of-the-table Barcelona, unbeaten in their 21 league games so far this season, go into tonight's match at Atletico Madrid without most of their regular defenders. While the front pages of the Catalan press carry pictures of Barca's sublime front line accompanied by sabre-rattling headlines such as "attack is the best form of def-ence", there is concern within the club at the number of defensive injuries - especially as this fixture traditionally produces a blizzard of goals.
Barca are without the suspended centre-backs Rafael Marquez and Gerard Pique, while Daniel Alves, Eric Abidal and Dmytro Chygrynskiy are injured. Yaya Toure, the midfielder who occasionally plays at the back, is also on the sidelines which leaves Carles Puyol, Gabriel Milito and Maxwell as the only recognised first-team defenders available. Andres Iniesta, their playmaker, put on a brave face, saying: "We can have no excuses. It's a difficult situation, but these things happen. We have to press on with what we have got. We simply have one added difficulty to overcome and we take that challenge."
Barca will turn to reserve players like Muniesa, Bartra, Jeffren, Dalmau and Jonathan Dos Santos, who will be charged with marking Atletico's strikers Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan. "They wouldn't be at Barcelona if they didn't have talent or if they were not ready to play," added Iniesta. "And if they do play then the more regular players will help them feel more comfortable." Iniesta came through the Barca youth system so he can relate to the position of the youngsters who are doing well with Barca Atletic in Spain's regional third division.
"They will be dying to play for the first team," stressed Iniesta. "When I was in their position I could not wait to play. Enthusiasm can win over the nerves which make you play badly. All we are doing with the younger players in training is helping them fit into the team. That's one of the responsibilities of the most experienced players." Barca will stick to their attacking 4-3-3 system. "We never change, it doesn't matter who plays or who we play," added Iniesta. "The most important thing is that everyone knows their role and is very clear about that."
With Barca's last three league visits to the Calderon producing 19 goals, neutrals love the games between the two. Atletico's Argentinian striker Aguero inspired his side to 4-3 and 4-2 victories, while Barca won 6-0 three years ago. "We know they have fast players, move quickly and play on the counter attack," concluded Iniesta, "but we aim to stay solid. We won't relax." The comments of one of the reserve players, Jeffren, 22, will not fill the Barca fans with confidence. Asked to play right back in training, he said: "I did the best I could. I became tired very quickly and that affected me a bit, but I did all I could."
With Barca's makeshift defence, fans of Atletico's neighbours Real are hoping that they can do them a favour. Atletico have had a poor season and sit in 12th. They were eliminated from the Champions League without winning a game but reached the Copa del Rey final in midweek - despite losing 3-2 at Racing Santander. They last won the cup when they beat a Barca side coached by Johan Cruyff in the 1996 final. Atletico went on to win the league a few weeks later, completing a double which is still their last silverware. Quique Sanchez Flores has a full strength squad to face Barca. He can unite the whole of Madrid if they win.
firstname.lastname@example.org Atletico v Barcelona, midnight, Aljazeera Sport +2