For the better part of the last 20 years, Barcelona have been playing a game of tag with Real Madrid atop La Liga’s mountain. A mountain that Atletico Madrid have only made occasional visits to (most recently in their title-winning campaign of 2013/14).
Because of both teams’ obvious rivalries with the aforementioned Real Madrid, most Barca-Atleti feuds have understandably taken a backseat. In recent years, however, meaningful football matches between the Blaugrana and the Colchoneros have grown into wonderfully varied encounters filled with action and narrative.
This Saturday, the two La Liga contenders will square off in what promises to be a shining example of this expanding conflict.
Let’s start with the obvious. It’s no secret that both Barca and Atletico employ playing styles that are very much in contrast with each other. Barcelona’s nu-tiki-taka-based philosophy relies heavily on ball-possession through midfield, while Atleti’s balls-to-the-wall strategy is about as direct and counterattacking as they come. But while Barcelona’s deployment of their style comes not entirely from their manager Luis Enrique, and instead from a club-wide institution, Atleti’s modus operandi is wholly a linear extension of their boss, Diego Simeone.
As a player, Simeone was a bruising midfield destroyer with an aggressive demeanor who was known for hard tackles. Naturally, the team’s he manages are the same.
When Simeone came into the capital in 2011, Atleti became a Frankenstein monster crafted in his image. As the Argentine’s fingerprints fused into the DNA of the Colchoneros, their opponents began collecting a few more bruises with every journey to the Vicente Calderon. Barca have been no exception to that painful new truth.
Incidents and altercations have become the status quo anytime Barcelona and Atletico Madrid clash now. In last January’s league match between the two, a rash tackle from Atleti defender Jose Maria Gimenez provided Neymar with this horrific, bloody ankle image that quickly went viral on social media.
Later that month, a feisty Copa del Rey quarterfinal disgracefully ended in random tunnel fights and red cards, but is most famously known for Arda Turan — now a Barca player — launching one of his shoes at a linesman. And just last May, a post-match squabble erupted after Barca’s title-clinching 1-0 win when Neymar was accused by multiple Atleti players of showboating, or as Gabi put it, “making provoking gestures.” And these are simply the examples from 2015. There are plenty more.
Very often, this tension between Barca and Atleti has boiled down to the longstanding roles in which these two classic Spanish sides have settled: Barca as the spoiled giants, Atleti as the spry underdogs. The continual displays of undermining from Simeone’s soldiers can be lodged as intentful — and sometimes effective — attempts at teasing Goliath with a sack of small pebbles.
The result doesn’t have to always be favorable to Atleti (nor the means respectable) for it to be worth it. Just so long as it makes the rich kids hide their tails. The piercing tackles are just as much about mental advantages as they are physical ones.
Fortunately for the slightly outmatched Colchoneros, Barca have begun their 2015/16 Primera campaign quite sheepishly. Rather than busting through the gates with last year’s league trophy in tow, Enrique’s team have put together two hard-fought-but-unspectacular 1-0 victories to start their season.
While that resilient edge will certainly aid the them against Atleti’s warlike approach, it stands to reason that the Catalans will need their usually decisive trident of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar to experience a rise in form if they hope to outlast the hosts. Evading flying boot studs and constant verbal prodding will be the gameplan.
Though it may be too soon to coat this match with hyperbolic narratives of “must-wins” and “title implications,” there is always a measure of importance to proceedings when these two teams play. Early season points begin an accumulation that can sometimes kill a true title race before it even begins.
As of now, both sides have six points from their first two Liga matches, with Atleti holding a two-goal differential advantage. It’s true that those numbers are measly compared to that 80-100 points each of Barca and Atleti will likely possess at season’s end. But it’s also true that these two teams could very well be separated by less than three points at season’s end — which means this game is vital. Don’t let the month on the calendar make you think otherwise.
In a small-but-perhaps-significant sidenote, the recent controversy surrounding fan mistreatment of Gerard Pique across Spain adds a new wrinkle to Saturday’s story. It’s hard to say when exactly the resentment towards Pique began, although it would appear to be a cumulative effect of the defender’s outspoken public support of Catalunya’s search for national independence.
This growing indignation seems to have come to a head over last week’s international break, particularly in La Roja’s match versus Slovakia, in which the World Cup winner was emphatically jeered every time he touched the ball. With Saturday’s match taking place in Spain’s capital city of Madrid, you can expect a boisterous reaction towards Pique specifically.
When such sensitive political beasts are poked, even justifiably so, the old adage of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” doesn’t necessarily equate to a pardon. Whether it be flesh, bones, or spirits, things will most definitely be broken when the Catalans visit the Calderon this weekend.