A shock 1-0 defeat to Real Sociedad last weekend after coach Luis Enrique had relegated nearly €300 million of talent, including Lionel Messi and Neymar, to the bench left Barcelona tied with Atletico one point adrift of leaders Real Madrid, who also have a game in hand their title rivals.
The unrest at the Camp Nou kicked into overdrive on Monday when sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta was sacked, his assistant and club legend Carles Puyol resigned and Messi then missed an open training session with the club’s fans. The Argentine sparked transfer rumours by then following Chelsea on the social networking site Instagram, whilst reports emerged that his relationship with Enrique is at breaking point.
On Wednesday, club president Josep Maria Bartomeu called early elections for the end of the season in response to the increasing pressure on his position, whilst insisting that Messi, who signed a contract until 2018 as recently as May, would remain in the Catalan capital.
Given the circumstances Atletico are probably the last opponents that Enrique’s men would like the face this weekend as they bound into Barcelona on a wave of enthusiasm created by Fernando Torres’s return to the club and a third win over Real Madrid this season on Wednesday. Torres contributed little in his first appearance for Los Rojiblancos in over seven years, but did taste victory over Real for the first time as an Atletico player thanks to second-half goals from Raul Garcia and Jose Maria Gimenez.
The result was even more impressive as Atletico boss Diego Simeone had made seven changes to his side and Torres is expected to start on the bench as Mario Mandzukic, Koke, Arda Turan, Juanfran and Miguel Angel Moya return to the starting line-up.
Before seeing their rivals do battle, Real Madrid can move four points clear at the top when they welcome Espanyol to the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday. Carlo Ancelotti’s men have also had a far from ideal start to the year with back-to-back defeats to Valencia and Atletico coming after a 22-game winning run to end 2014.
“I think to call it a crisis is a bit exaggerated, but it is clear that we are not happy,” Ancelotti said after defeat at the Vicente Calderon in midweek. “We have lost and we need to get back to winning quickly.”
Cristiano Ronaldo was only used as a second-half substitute against Atletico and is expected to return the starting line-up two days before he will hope to get his hands on a third FIFA Ballon d’Or on Monday.
Valencia’s victory over Madrid last weekend moved them back up to fourth and they can move to within a point of Barcelona and Atletico with a win at goal shy Celta Vigo on Saturday. Since shocking Barcelona at the Camp Nou in early November, Celta have taken just one point and failed to score in seven league games.
Meanwhile, David Moyes will be hoping his Real Sociedad side kick on from their latest giant-killing this season when they travel to struggling Granada. The Basques lie 13th, but have taken half their points so far this campaign from victories over Atletico, Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Spanish La Liga fixtures
Levante v Deportivo La Coruna
Almeria v Sevilla
Athletic Bilbao v Elche
Granada v Real Sociedad
Barcelona v Atletico Madrid
Rayo Vallecano v Cordoba