BARCELONA may have dominated the headlines by securing Lionel Messi on a new contract on the eve of their Primera Division showdown, but Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone believes his team can steal their thunder in the Nou Camp tonight and claim a first championship crown since 1996 if they continue with the same mindset they have shown all season.
Los Rojiblancos head into the final round of matches three points clear of the defending champions and needing only a draw to secure the title in a match which has captured the imagination of football fans around the world. And Simeone, who has also led his team to an all-Madrid Champions League final against Real, stressed at his pre-match press conference yesterday that his players must not change their game-plan for the winner-takes-all finale.
“We have always kept the same identity,” said Simeone. “I do not think this will change for the last game. Personality will be important. To have arrived at this point, we have put in a lot of work and effort. It has not been easy, but we are here on merit.”
The capital club will have Diego Costa back in contention, the top scorer having missed last weekend’s 1-1 draw against Malaga at the Vicente Calderon due to a hamstring strain. Simeone said that Costa now had “no problems” and was fit to start. “I have very nice feelings – it’s a big game,” the Argentine added. “We go there with intent and desire to compete. Hopefully the team will be prepared to show that on Saturday. Barcelona never stopped competing. That allows them to have this possibility. They are always a dangerous team.”
Like Atletico, Barca too received good news on the injury front yesterday as Gerard Pique (hip), Jordi Alba (thigh) and Neymar (foot) were all given the medical green light to play after coming through training unscathed.
Coach Gerardo Martino will have all first-team players at his disposal, with the exception of Victor Valdes as the goalkeeper continues his recovery from a knee injury in Germany.
“Neymar, Pique and Alba have worked very hard to return,” Martino said at his pre-match press conference. “Now we’ll see if they play. It’s now about one game – not about six in a row.”
The Catalan outfit, whose players and staff congregated on Thursday for an emotional farewell to retiring club captain Carles Puyol, were boosted on the eve of the match by the news Argentina forward Messi had agreed terms on a new deal. “It is a very personal matter and it should give peace to him and especially to the club, who can continue to count on the best player in the world,” Martino said.
Martino’s future has been the subject of much speculation of late, with reports suggesting he will be replaced by Luis Enrique at the end of the campaign – despite having signed a two-year deal when he succeeded Tito Vilanova last summer.
The Argentine has on numerous occasions this term vowed to honour his contract in Catalonia, but, with Enrique announcing yesterday that he will leave his current role at Celta Vigo at the end of the season, Martino’s future will again be under the spotlight in the coming days.
However, he remained focused yesterday as he looked ahead to his side’s biggest match of the season. “I wish with all my heart for the club to become champions, but in my career there will not be a phenomenal change,” he said. “I decide what I want to do, and no title will change me. I will value my time at Barca more as time goes by, rather than while I’m still here. There is not a clear favourite for the game. I am approaching the game with a lot of tranquillity.
“I would like to win La Liga for the players. It has been a very difficult year for them. It’s a chance to win a trophy, against a direct rival, and at home. If this team wins La Liga, it’d be their first one as normal people – hard-fought. The others were won by extra-terrestrials.”
Whatever the future holds for Martino, he wants to end this season on a high in memory of Vilanova, who lost his battle with cancer last month. “Tito’s passing was my worst moment as Barca coach,” he said. “I hope the best moment will be tomorrow.”
The game at the Nou Camp will be only the third “winner takes all” match on the final day of the campaign in La Liga history and the first since 1951.
Atletico and Barca have already played each other five times this season in a series of closely-fought encounters where the Catalan club had the lion’s share of possession but were mostly thwarted by Atletico’s mean defence.
Barca edged Atletico to win the season-opening Spanish Super Cup, when Neymar’s goal in a 1-1 draw at the Calderon in the first leg was enough to secure victory after the pair played out a 0-0 stalemate at the Nou Camp in the return.
After holding Barca 0-0 at the Calderon in January in La Liga, Atletico clung on for a 1-1 draw at the Nou Camp in last month’s Champions League quarter-final, first leg and won the return 1-0 in Madrid.