FAMILIAR FOE AS BARCA BATTLE IDENTITY CRISIS
Lacklustre performances, rumours of discontent concerning his star player and questions over his capacity to inspire Barcelona with Atletico Madrid on the horizon. Luis Enrique has been here before.
Until a battered and bruised Barca staggered out of Parc des Princes after last week's 4-0 Champions League humiliation at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain, their head coach's toughest moment in charge came during his first season at the helm.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) February 22, 2017
Barcelona's first match of 2015 was a wretched 1-0 loss at a rain-lashed Anoeta against David Moyes' Real Sociedad. Lionel Messi was rested and unable to turn the tide as a second-half substitute, while afterwards the Catalan press was dominated by reports of a "him or me" ultimatum made by the Argentina superstar due to his unhappiness with Luis Enrique's methods.
A routine 5-0 win over Elche in the Copa del Rey only marginally lightened the mood. Up next were Atletico –the team bearing greater responsibility than any other for Gerardo Martino's 12-months as Barca boss ending in failure, having dumped his side out of the Champions League and secured a draw at Camp Nou to pip them to the LaLiga title on an unforgettable final day of the 2013-14 campaign.
The knives were out but Luis Enrique's men performed majestically. Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar scored in the same LaLiga match for the first time as the hosts ran out 3-1 winners. Soon enough, MSN would not only be the name for Microsoft's flagship internet portal.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) January 11, 2015
A two-legged Copa del Rey triumph came hot on the heels of that win, meaning Barca had three victories in the space of 17 days over a side they had failed to beat in six attempts the previous season.
Over the subsequent weeks and months, Luis Enrique's reboot of Barcelona would crystalise amid a relentless march to a treble to match the feted heroes of 2008-09.
The intricate midfield build-up – which Atletico successfully made it their business to short circuit – remained a feature of the Catalan club's play but was intertwined with a more direct route to the formidable, havoc-wreaking front three.
Coming the season after Spain's World Cup collapse in Brazil heralded the apparent end of the tiki-taka, Luis Enrique's Barca 2.0 was a way of preserving a glorious era with less predictability and added dynamism.
Fast-forward to the present day and that virtue is a stick with which to beat him.
Luis Enrique, sleepwalking towards a Camp Nou exit when his contract ends in June, is the man held responsible for robbing Barcelona of their identity. Once home to the most stylistically identifiable midfield in world football, they now field a rotating cast bloated by sub-standard recruits.
The more direct approach means defence and midfield are no longer so wonderfully in-sync and susceptible to teams pressing high with relentless aggression. Atletico Madrid will not need a second invitation.
— Atlético de Madrid (@atletienglish) February 18, 2017
After a typically narrow, grinding and ill-tempered Copa del Rey exit to Barca this month, Diego Simeone's side have netted 11 goals in their past three matches.
Two in three minutes from Yannick Carrasco and Antoine Griezmann completed a stunning 3-2 comeback against Celta Vigo; Kevin Gameiro's five-minute hat-trick blew away Sporting Gijon late on; and Bayer Leverkusen were 2-0 down inside 25 minutes before subsiding 4-2 at home in the Champions League in midweek.
Barcelona laboured past Leganes last weekend, ambling through a foggy post-Paris sulk, with Messi seemingly enraged by the indignity of sealing victory via a stoppage-time penalty. They look ripe for the sort of short, sharp bursts Atletico have been inflicting of late.
Reports of a switch away from Barca's customary 4-3-3 to employ a 4-2-3-1 formation this weekend – identity, be damned – show Luis Enrique again looking to reignite his team for a must-win clash with Atletico. If the plan fails to spark, his plod towards the exit door and away from the LaLiga title will gather uncomfortable pace.
DIEGO SIMEONE: CLASICO IRRITANT
Since taking charge of Atletico in 2012, Simeone has led his club to offer the kind of persistent and credible challenge to Spanish football's two superpowers that appeared highly unlikely during the modern era. He is without a major honour since the phenomenal LaLiga title triumph of 2013-14 and now has Sevilla as strong contenders to be named "best of the rest", but the Argentinean's reputation as the scourge of the Clasico duo remains intact.
Here we look at some of the stats behind the coach and the team who relish agitating against Spanish football's duopoly.
6 – Atletico's 2013-14 season-spanning unbeaten streak against Barcelona ran for six matches. Five were draws as they lost the Supercopa de Espana on away goals but knocked them out of the Champions League with the only win of the sextet.
7 – Simeone's worst run against Barcelona is seven consecutive defeats, set in motion by a the LaLiga loss in his first clash with Luis Enrique in January 2015. Victory to again send Barca packing in the Champions League last season ended the slump.
4 – Atletico have only failed to score in four of their 17 meetings with Barcelona since the start of the 2013-14 season, netting in each of the past seven encounters. They have never scored more or lost by a greater margin than two in these customarily tight affairs.
9 – The number of games Atletico went against city rivals Real Madrid without losing in 90 minutes between February 2014 and April 2015, although that did include an extra-time defeat in the 2014 Champions League final.
3 – Last February's 1-0 victory made Atletico the only team in LaLiga history to win three consecutive top-flight games at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Simplemente emocionante!!! pic.twitter.com/MpeEdDbwaj
— Diego Pablo Simeone (@Simeone) January 31, 2017