The concept of a new or emerging football rivalry is a relative rarity in the game’s traditional powerhouse leagues where enemies have long since been forged and rivalries have an eternal feel. Even more so in a country such as Spain where football teams are so often closely tied to political and social causes. Rivalries which are purely about football aren’t that easy to find in this country which makes the emergence of Barcelona’s bubbling feud with Atlético Madrid all the more refreshing.
Clashes with Real Madrid will always mean more to supporters of both these teams for fairly obvious reasons but with each passing season, Barça’s meetings with Atléti seem to grow in significance and with good reason. These after all are two of Europe’s strongest teams going through golden eras in their histories at the same time. The fact they have achieved success with vastly different philosophies adds to the intrigue.
Of course there have been periods in decades gone by, when the pair have been competing for silverware in the upper echelons of Spanish football together but they’ve tended to be brief enough that a strong rivalry never really developed. A mutual dislike of Los Blancos perhaps helped but the Catalans might also have been forgiven for thinking Atléti wouldn’t be around for long as a major force and it would just be a case of riding out the storm. However ever since Diego Simeone walked through the doors of the Vicente Calderon, they’ve had to seriously reevaluate that position.
Some might argue the current and most fervent chapter in the Barça-Atléti story dates back further than that. Los Rojiblancos were a real bogey side for Barcelona in the first decade of the 21st Century. Following their return to the top flight in 2002, Atléti lost just one of their next nine meetings with Barcelona, winning four of them despite being essentially a mid-table side at the time.
They were more of a nuisance than a team capable of denying Barcelona silverware though and you have to fast-forward to the 2013 Supercopa to reach a point in time when that really started to change. Diego Simeone’s men went toe-to-toe with Barça for 180 attritional minutes. The tie ended 1-1 and although they were defeated by Neymar’s away goal, his first for the club, Atléti must have sensed a moral victory had been won and they would soon be proved right.
Few sides from the Pep Guardiola era onwards had stifled Barça’s slick passing game and enormous goalscoring potential as effectively as Atléti did in that tie and it really laid down a marker for the subsequent four meetings that season when Gerardo Martino’s
inability to find a way to break down that rock solid back four of Juanfran, Miranda, Diego Godín and Filipe Luís effectively cost him his job. It also ensured Barcelona wouldn’t add any more trophies to their haul that season.
Despite the creative powers of Xavi and Iniesta and the all-round brilliance of Messi, Martino’s side scored just three goals in six matches against Atléti that season, exiting the Champions League with a 1-0 defeat at the Vicente Calderon and then squandering the title to the same opposition after being held to a 1-1 draw by Atléti on a dramatic final day of the league season.
In the grand scheme of things, certainly over the past ten years, the failure of the 2013-14 campaign may just be remembered as an aberration as far as Barcelona are concerned but if they were hoping Atlético Madrid would just fade away following that, as some predicted, they’ve been proved very wrong.
Fast forward two years and four months and Atléti are still very much a major force in Spanish and European football and Barcelona are again reeling from a damaging defeat in their most recent match against them. Atléti’s 2-0 win in the 2nd Leg of their Champions League Quarter Final in the Spring actually ended a seven match losing streak for them against the Catalans but they’d had reason to feel aggrieved at suffering defeat in several of those games, six of which were decided by just a single goal.
Diego Simeone has yet to win a league clash against Barcelona during his time at the helm in Madrid but, and it is a big but, he has outwitted the Catalans when it has really mattered. The record-books may show Atléti have won just two of the last twenty meetings between the clubs but that doesn’t do justice to some of the ferocious battles that have taken place and it will be scant consolation to Barcelona or their players who will still be hurting from that defeat nearly five months ago. It won’t be lost on any of their longer-serving players that the only times Barça haven’t won the Champions League or La Liga in the past three years, they have been denied at the hands of Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid on each occasion.
That to some extent explains why this fixture has developed into one of the most fascinating on the Spanish and European football calendar. It may not have the raw hatred of ‘el clasico’ nor is it likely to develop into the end-to-end shoot-out that has been a feature of Barcelona’s meetings with Real Madrid, certainly in the 21st century.
What this game boils down to at the present is world football’s most dangerous forward-line against arguably its best defence and certainly one of its most disciplined, well-drilled teams. It’s a contrast of styles, a battle of wits and one for the tacticians to get their teeth into.
The addition of Luis Suarez and improvement of Neymar has helped Barcelona overcome their early struggles to break-down Diego Simeone’s side but the Atléti boss is a more flexible coach than many give him credit for and the 2016 meetings so far have seen him throw down a few curve-balls in terms of team selection and approach that have caught his opposite number off guard.
The latest chapter in this increasingly intriguing rivalry will be written this week and suggestions that it is too early in the season to really effect things are wide of the mark. Meetings between Barcelona and the Madrid clubs are now regularly determining the destination of the title given how rarely the ‘big three’ drop points against the rest of the division.
La Liga has been won by three points or less in each of the last three seasons. Barcelona’s ability to hold their nerve and keep their discipline to win two tight, fiery league encounters with Atléti last season was decisive in their title win, as it was the Madrid club that accumulated more points from the sides’ other 36 games.
This Wednesday Luis Enrique will be bidding to banish the ghost of that game at the Vicente Calderon, the only time his side has been eliminated from a major competition during his two seasons at the helm and the only time his management has been thrown under really serious scrutiny. Diego Simeone meanwhile will know that his team needs to end their losing league run against Barça, which now stands at 4 matches, if they are to realistically stand a chance of winning the title.
Therefore even before the last dregs of the Spanish summer have disappeared, this meeting between Atléti and Barça at Camp Nou has plenty riding on it and should give us the first indications as to what direction this rivalry is heading as we move into 2017.
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