Atletico de Madrid vs FC Barcelona: La Liga combined XI

La Liga's top two sides face each other today at the Nou Camp. With only 12 games remaining in the season and five points separating the two, this could be a title-defining clash. If Atletico Madrid can beat host Barcelona, the gap will only be two, the title up in the air. Any other result consolidates Barca's claim on the Primera Division crown. Barcelona have been unbeaten this season in La Liga. Atletico have lost only once. The Rojiblancos are in prolific form, winning their last six matches. Antoine Griezmann is doing what he does best. That said, Barcelona haven't lost a single Liga game in their previous 15 against Atletico. The corresponding fixture at the Wanda Metropolitano ended 1-1. To counter Barca's dominance over Los Colchoneros, Diego Simeone has never lost a league game against Ernesto Valverde winning six, drawing four.
Meanwhile, Atletico are favourite opponents for both Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi. The Uruguayan has had his hand in six goals in six matches against Atleti. The Argentine has scored 27 against them, his second-best record against an opponent after Sevilla. Both the teams have outstanding players, but who makes the cut in the combined XI? Only fit players are considered.

Manager: Ernesto Valverde

Barcelona fans weren't exactly optimistic coming into the campaign. Neymar was gone. The new manager came from provincial Athletic with no experience massaging massive egos. Valverde has made it look easy. Come March, Barcelona have kept themselves sorted. They have thrived under the new man's more balanced tactics. A Johan Cruyff disciple, Valverde has maintained the emphasis on attractive football. He's also reminded them that defence matters. They are second only to Atleti in fewest goals conceded on the campaign, lead the league in goals and points, and are through to the Copa del Rey final. Simeone has been phenomenal for Atleti, reaching the Champions League final twice in the last four years. He's never lost to Valverde either. There is a first time for everything.

 

GK: Jan Oblak

Oblak has been phenomenal for Los Rojiblancos this season. The Slovenian shot-stopper is among Europe's elite. Marc-Andre ter Stegan keeps the same company, but Oblak wins out for the intimidation factor he brings. He commands Atletico’s impermeable defence with iron gloves. Simeone's number one has managed 17 clean sheets in 26 La Liga matches, conceding only eleven goals. RB: Sergei Roberto The young fullback is a treat to watch. His defending skills and accurate service make him the envy of any top-flight club. He always moves forward in possession, linking seamlessly with the midfield. He can play the more advanced role at need. A prized La Masia graduate, he has assisted six times this season and posted a 91% pass completion rate. He provides more options and width to his team than counterparts, Juanfran and Sime Vrsaljko. Centre-backs: Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Hernandez At the beginning of the season, the question was who would pair with Gerard Pique. Samuel Umtiti has turned the question on its head. The 24-year-old is better than Pique in terms of tackles and interceptions. The French international's speed and stamina allow him to rescue Barca everytime they are hit on the counter. Hernandez has adapted well to Simeone’s tactics. He can man the flank as well as the middle. The Frenchman has been considered over Pique, Diego Godin and Felipe Luis due to his raw pace and pertinacious defending. He has managed 3.3 tackles per 90 this season in La Liga.

Left-back: Jordi Alba

Jordi Alba has benefitted most from Neymar's departure. He now has the freedom to go forward and always has the left winger's support in defending. He has crafted a special connection with Leo Messi in the bargain. Alba has provided five assists of his six to Messi. During a recent absence, Lucas Digne played but didn't fit the system as Alba does. Filipe Luis is a decent fullback, but Alba's passing ability and pace give him the edge.

DM: Sergio Busquets

Busquets has been a driving force in the midfield for Barcelona. He defends, starts the attack, and is a calm presence at the heart of the team. He has managed a 90% pass completion rate across competitions this season. He always makes himself available when the centre-halves are under duress. Though, Koke and Thomas Partey have been in good touch for Atletico they are no match for Busquets.
 

CM: Andres Iniesta, Saul Niguez

The 33-year-old club legend has been with Barca since childhood. His playing time is strictly rationed these days, but he remains a trump card at Valverde's disposal. It was his reaction to Andreas Christensen's error and the subsequent cutback pass for Messi that rescued the Champions League first leg against Chelsea. Greying hair or not, Iniesta still has it. Saul can play any midfield role. Creative, he is also deadly from long range. He has completed 136 tackles and interceptions combined, the most by any player in the Spanish top-tier league.

AM: Phillipe Coutinho

Coutinho has yet to prove himself in the Blaugrana strip but is a star player who knows how to absorb pressure in a high-stakes match. He has started only four games since his arrival in Spain, scoring twice and assisting once. During his stay at Anfield, Coutinho was involved in 20 goals (12 goals, eight assists) in just 20 matches.

Strikers: Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann

Only Diego Costa and Luis Suarez are second guessing these choices. Messi is a prolific dribbler with great finishing skills. La Liga's all-time scorer is leading this campaign's Pichichi race with 23 goals. He is starting as a centre-forward for the first time in his career since 2011. Add a dozen assists to his near-two-dozen strikes. Griezzman is back at his best in 2018. His partnership with Lionel Messi would be a nightmare for even the best defenders. The Frenchman has scored eight goals and assisted twice in just five Liga games in February. Primarily, a centre-forward he can also operate on the flanks.

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