La Liga’s feature match-up of the weekend pits top-of-the-table sides Barcelona and Atlético at the Camp Nou.
Proceedings between the league-leaders and second-place Atleti, who trail the Blaugrana by six points, get underway on Sunday at 21:00 CET.
Both squads virtually assured their passage into the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey in the first leg of their respective round of 16 fixtures at the midweek, the Culés defeating Córdoba away 2-0 and the Colchoneros drubbing Getafe 3-0 at the Vicente Calderón.
This exciting clash throws the spotlight onto the Primera División’s top two leading scorers in superstar forwards Lionel Messi and fellow South American Radamel Falcao.
The Argentine’s brace in Córdoba was his seventh in-a-row, taking his tally up to 32 in the present campaign in all competitions. Messi also has 88 for the calendar year, perhaps a world record depending on which club’s fans you ask.
The Colombian meanwhile, enters this encounter on the back of a sublime five-goal performance against Deportivo last Sunday. With his manita, he blazed past Cristiano Ronaldo for second place in the Pichichi race, with 16 league goals to his name to the Portuguese’s 13. Messi leads the pack by too many to even bother at this point.
After being held out from Copa del Rey action on Wednesday with a minor, unspecified muscle strain, Atleti’s lethal hitman will be back to spearhead Diego Simeone’s attack.
Ahead of this bout, the Rojiblanco faithful were much more subdued and reticent compared to all the hype leading up to the most recent Madrid derby. Nonetheless, fans will be hoping their men will behave quite the oppositely when the ball gets rolling on Sunday.
Though Simeone subsequently denied these claims, Rojiblanco players admitted that ‘El Cholo’ reminded them throughout the week that they “owe a debt to the fans from the derby”.
Atleti’s two biggest away tests of the season, at Valencia and at Real Madrid, both ended in 2-0 losses, so this meeting will offer a chance at a little redemption, though the task is unquestionably a monumental one.
Our last three games in Culé territory have ended in heavy defeats, with a combined scoreline of 13-2 in those visits (5-2; 3-0; 5-0).
Simeone told reporters on Saturday, “There are two ways to look at this match: one, by letting oneself get excited, using one’s imagination and fantasising.”
‘Cholospeare’ continued: “Then, there’s reality. I like to look at things realistically. It’s very difficult to play where everyone fantasises and uses their imagination. Reality takes you to playing in a sector of the pitch close to your own goal, and tomorrow, we’ll find ourselves in that situation, looking past all the excitement and fantasy, though we welcome that hope and fantasy.”
The Argentine tactician feels confident his men will create more chances than they did against Real Madrid.
“We’re a very direct team and hopefully we can [have more opportunities], finding quick outlets from ball recoveries.”
With regard to stopping the always deadly Messi, Simeone, like so many managers before him, was hard-pressed to offer a clear solution.
“I don’t think there’s a team he hasn’t scored against,” he said.
“He’s scored  this year, so he’s scored a lot against all of them. This doesn’t surprise us.”
Adrián, who sustained a right ankle sprain against Getafe on Wednesday, made a surprise recovery and will be available for the trip to Barcelona.
“Adrián makes us happy,” Cholo said about the Asturian’s availablity before revealing that he will start the game on the bench.
“[Adrián’s availablity] offers us great substitution options and that is positive for the team and the group,” he said.
Super-sub Cristian ‘Cebolla’ Rodríguez on the other hand, will remain in Madrid as he continues to nurse a hamstring injury suffered against Real Jaén a little over a fortnight ago.
Joel, Cisma, Pulido and Sílvio will all miss out through tactical decision.
Before the bout, Barcelona boss Tito Vilanova graciously pointed out that, “In any other competition, Atleti would be leading the league”.
“Barça have made the best ever start to a season, so [Atlético’s] is also one of the best,” converted central defender Javier Mascherano was quoted as saying by ESPN FC .
“They must be respected. Knowing the mentality of their coach, Atlético will not stop fighting. We would be very mistaken to underestimate them.”
Cesc Fabregas strained his thigh in his team’s 2-1 triumph away at Betis last weekend and will be out for the remainder of 2012.
Atlético match selection:
Goalkeepers: Sergio Asenjo, Courtois
Defenders: Godín, Filipe Luis, Cata Díaz, Juanfran, Miranda, Manquillo
Midfielders: Mario Suárez, Tiago, Koke, Raúl García, Arda, Gabi, Emre
Forwards: Adrián, Falcao, Diego Costa
Barcelona match selection: TBA
Referee: Miguel Ángel Pérez Lasa
Make sure to enter your prediction for this match in the AtléticoFans Forum here!