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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Barcelona face first real test as trip to Atletico Madrid comes amid a backdrop of political tension

Valverde's men have a 100 per cent record in Primera Liga, but trip to Madrid is start of a tougher run of fixtures.

Barcelona have had a lot to celebrate by winning their first seven games of the season, but they face a tough test at Atletico Madrid. Albert Gea / Reuters
Barcelona have had a lot to celebrate by winning their first seven games of the season, but they face a tough test at Atletico Madrid. Albert Gea / Reuters

Barcelona return from the international break with their toughest game of the league season so far, Atletico Madrid away on Saturday.

It is Barca's first visit to the superb new Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Spain’s capital and the reaction from the 67,000 capacity crowd, with no away fans this week for “logistical” reasons, will be ferocious.

Political events surrounding Catalonia’s bid for independence have charged the mood in Spain, with a resurgence of Spanish nationalism as governments in Madrid and Barcelona fail to agree a way forward.

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Street protests and counter protests have been common, families and friends have fallen out and the rivalry will spill over into the sporting arena when the two giants meet.

There has never been a shortage of Spain flags flown by Atletico’s Frente ultras, but the current crisis is a mainstream one, so expect a sea of Spanish flags and anti-Catalan sentiment – not that there will be any Barca fans to respond.

Barca’s players, most of whom are not Catalan, will feel the full force of the invective, which even saw Spaniards criticising Andres Iniesta, the scorer of the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final, for suggesting that negotiation and dialogue would not be a bad idea to help the Catalan situation.

Barca were relieved this week when Iniesta signed a new contract and he should be fit to play against Atletico. Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano returned by private jet from their World Cup qualifying exploits with Argentina.

League leaders Barca should have no complaints about their fixtures at the start of the season.

They have won all seven league games, hold a five-point lead at the top of the Primera Liga and are seven ahead of Real Madrid. But six of their seven victories have come against teams in the bottom nine.

Only Real Betis, Barca’s first league opponents at the Camp Nou and now sitting in sixth, have been in the top half.

The untaxing schedule came at the right time for Ernesto Valverde, for fans were angry and impatient after losing Neymar and being outclassed by Real Madrid in two domestic Super Cup games.

As each win came, so the push to oust club president Josep Maria Bartomeu fizzled out.

Barca have not played stunningly well and there has been discord with changes behind the scenes at director and recruitment level.

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There is harmony, however, among the players. It has been an impressive start to the season, but tougher tests are imminent.

Following the game at fourth-placed Atletico, who remain unbeaten in the league (though they were defeated at home to Chelsea in the Uefa Champions League), Barca’s next away match is at Athletic Bilbao before a home game against Sevilla and away fixtures at Leganes, Valencia, Villarreal and Real Madrid before the end of the year.

But first await Atletico, and Diego Simeone who will be boosted by the arrival of Diego Costa and Vitolo once the club’s transfer ban ends on January 1.

That will likely lead to some of Atletico’s surfeit of attacking talent, which includes Antoine Griezmann, Angel Correa, Luciano Vietto, Yannick Carrasco, Fernando Torres, Kevin Gameiro and Nico Gaitan being sold to balance the books.

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But that is for the future. In this week’s tie, much of the attention will be on what happens off the pitch.

Barca’s previous game, on the day the controversial referendum on Catalan independence was held, was played behind closed doors at the last minute.

The cerebral Gerard Pique was whistled when he played for Spain last week, even though he has never stated a preference for Catalan independence.

He is unlikely to get a kind reception in Madrid, but it is up to Barca to rise above the melee if they are to maintain their 100 per cent record.