After an eventful, exhausting international break, La Liga returns with one of Spain’s most mouthwatering fixtures on Saturday – Atletico Madrid vs Barcelona.
This represents the sternest test of the season so far for Ernesto Valverde’s high-flying side, and it offers Los Colchoneros an opportunity to close the increasingly wide gap at the top.
Both sides have a plethora of talented players – though they play in very different styles – and a moment of quality could be what decides the clash at Wanda Metropolitano. Here’s a combined XI of players from the two sides.
11. GK: Jan Oblak
Atletico’s Slovenian shot-stopper has established himself as undoubtedly one of Europe’s best in recent years.
An imposing figure in goal, his presence has been a major factor in the club’s notoriously impermeable defence. Few goalkeepers are as well-rounded or as consistent as Oblak, and few would beat him into the starting lineup of any side.
Unfortunately for Marc-André ter Stegen, he is not quite at the level of his opposite number on this occasion.
10. RB: Sergi Roberto
Though some have expressed doubts over Sergi Roberto’s effectiveness as an out-and-out full-back, there can be little question over his dependability.
Naturally a midfield player, the 25-year-old has had to play at right-back since the departure of Dani Alves, and he has done so commendably.
This season, Nelson Semedo has been brought in to offer a challenge, and has impressed so far, but Roberto remains a solid option at right-back. Atletico, meanwhile, have had issues in the position, with Juanfran beginning to decline and Šime Vrsaljko yet to full establish himself.
9. CB: Gerard Piqué
Few teams would not be improved by the calming presence of Gerard Piqué, a defender who has aged like a fine wine.
The 30-year-old has been a staple of the successful Barcelona teams of recent years, and remains an integral part of their team. Piqué is almost a representative of the club, the unflappable leader who orchestrates things at the back.
Without him, Barcelona would likely be significantly less confident of leaving Madrid on Saturday with a victory.
8. CB: Diego Godín
Some consider Diego Godin the world’s best centre-back; if he’s not, then he’s certainly amongst the candidates.
The Uruguayan has built a reputation as an unscrupulous, rugged defender, with little concern but for keeping the ball out of his side’s net. But he is also a leader, a motivator and occasional goalscorer.
“Nothing thrills me less than playing against Atlético,” Luis Suarez once said. “They’re so annoying and Godín is a nuisance; he’s always there next to me, he never leaves me alone.”
7. LB: Filipe Luís
Filipe Luís has been excellent since his return to Atletico, having departed in 2014 for one season with Chelsea.
Not many left-backs can boast defensive and offensive attributes as complete as the Brazilian, and not many perform at such a consistently high level.
Atletico will need him to be at his best in both areas of the pitch if they are to inflict a first defeat of the season on Barcelona.
6. CM: Koke
When Koke signed a five-year contract extension with Atletico in May, it was met with understandable delight from supporters of the club.
The 25-year-old has epitomised the rise to prominence of Diego Simeone’s side in recent years, tenacious and combative in midfield. But he adds an all import technical quality, a guile that can help unlock defences or produce a moment of individual brilliance.
He is essential to Atletico, and one of La Liga’s most intelligent midfield players.
5. CM: Sergio Busquets
To leave Sergio Busquets out of any team would be scandalous, such is his simplistic brilliance, his uniquely perceptive ability to read the game.
The midfielder has never been spectacular, he has never been attracted to the headlines. He simply does his job, impeccably, but often in the background, away from the free-flowing, exciting attacking play associated with Barcelona.
Some have undervalued his contribution, but those that understand the game hold him in the highest regard. “Busquets is the best defensive central midfielder in the world,” Pep Guardiola once said, and it’s hard to disagree.
4. CM: Andrés Iniesta
He may be 33 and no longer in his prime, but he is still Andrés Iniesta.
While he may have lost some pace, his mind has been unaffected by age, as has his superior technique. And Ernesto Valverde seems confident in Iniesta’s ability to start games without the need for a prolonged rest.
He is still very much capable of dictating the outcome of a big game.
3. RW: Lionel Messi
Who else? The Argentine has now hit his 30s, but his prolific goalscoring has not ceased. In fact, it appears it could be getting more ludicrously impressive.
Messi has scored 11 goals in seven La Liga appearances this season, two in two Champions League games, and on Tuesday night bagged a crucial hat-trick for Argentina to send them through to the World Cup.
Atletico will be even more wary him than usual, then.
2. ST: Luis Suárez
Luis Suárez has had a difficult start to the season, and has at times looked a frustrated figure in a Barcelona shirt. But a dip in form should not take away from the Uruguayan’s fully deserved status as one of the game’s best strikers.
He will likely find his feet again soon, a scary thought for the defenders that have to face both he and Messi at the top of their game.
1. LW: Antoine Griezmann
The Frenchman completes what would be a very tasty front three.
Griezmann, like Suárez, has not scored as many as he would have liked so far this campaign, although that is in part due to the three game ban he picked up earlier in the season.
But he is still very much Atletico’s focal point, the player they will look towards for inspiration against a confident Barcelona side on Saturday.