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Barcelona resurgence set for test against revitalised Atletico

By AFP

March 15, 2024 08:41 AM


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Barcelona make the trip to Atletico Madrid on Sunday attempting to keep their slim La Liga title hopes alive in a meeting of two Champions League quarter-finalists.

Five-time European champions Barca returned to the last eight of the competition on Tuesday for the first time since 2020 with a 4-2 aggregate win over Napoli, extending their unbeaten run to nine games since Xavi Hernandez's announcement that he would be stepping down as coach at the end of the season.

They were joined in the quarter-finals a day later by Atletico, who defeated last season's runners-up Inter Milan on penalties after coming back from two goals down in the tie on a memorable night in front of a record 69,196 crowd at the Estadio Metropolitano.

"The only thing I can say to the fans is thank you. The team rose to the occasion because we have all these people behind us who give us energy," said Atletico coach Diego Simeone.

"The players didn't think about whether to run or not, they ran and it's because this stadium is incredible. The team won when no one believed they could and it's because they gave their all."

Last weekend's 2-0 loss at lowly Cadiz left Atletico with just two wins in six in the league and in danger of being overtaken by Athletic Bilbao in the race for fourth place and the final Champions League qualifying spot.

"Maybe in the last month we've not been in great shape but we showed we can do much more," said Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak, who saved two penalties in the shootout against Inter.

In contrast, Barca's domestic form is much stronger with eight wins in 11, even if retaining their Liga crown looks beyond reach given the eight points separating them and Real Madrid, whose only defeats have come to Atletico in the league and Copa del Rey.

"There has been a lot of unfair criticism, (that we were) the joke of the Champions League, we had to play with that pressure," said Xavi after the Napoli victory.

"It's a more than deserved qualification, it's one of my best moments as Barcelona coach."

Madrid could extend their margin at the top to double digits on Saturday when they visit Osasuna, but the leaders will again be without top scorer Jude Bellingham as he completes a two-match suspension.

Second-placed Girona, who sit a point above Barca, go to Getafe before Athletic host Alaves.

Celta Vigo, in 17th, begin life after Rafa Benitez away to Sevilla with reserve team coach Claudio Giraldez stepping up the top job.

Bottom side Almeria also have a new man in charge as former Real Betis and West Brom boss Pepe Mel begins his tenure with a game away to Las Palmas.

 

One to watch: Pau Cubarsi

Less than two months after making his debut, the 17-year-old has marked himself out as a future cornerstone of the Barcelona defence.

Cubarsi turned in a starring performance against one of the game's most feared strikers Victor Osimhen in midweek, attracting widespread praise from his team-mates and coach.

"His sudden emergence is wonderful for Barcelona and Spanish football -- we're looking at a top-level defender for years to come," said Xavi.

 

Key stats

2 - fewest wins in a season by a club in La Liga history, most recently Sporting Gijon in 1997-98. Almeria are winless in 28 matches this term.

19 - quarter-final appearances for Barcelona in the modern Champions League era. Only Bayern Munich and Real Madrid have more since 1992-93.

21 - points Almeria have dropped from a winning position this season.

 

Fixtures (all times GMT)

Friday

Real Sociedad v Cadiz (2000)

Saturday

Mallorca v Granada (1300), Osasuna v Real Madrid (1515), Getafe v Girona (1730), Athletic Bilbao v Alaves (2000)

Sunday

Sevilla v Celta Vigo (1200), Las Palmas v Almeria, Villarreal v Valencia (1515), Rayo Vallecano v Real Betis (1730), Atletico Madrid v Barcelona (2000)


AFP


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