Joao Felix

Diego Simeone has never beaten Barcelona in LaLiga as Atletico Madrid coach. There have been six draws and 11 defeats but no wins in the 17 matches.

If he was beginning to fancy his chances of breaking the duck this Saturday, then the news that Luis Suarez will miss the game because of a positive coronavirus test will have dampened his optimism.

But all is not lost. Atletico still have LaLiga’s best player on recent form in Joao Felix, there is a clear recent example of them coping without Suarez this season, and there is also the prospect of Diego Costa returning just in time to add his weight to Atletico’s challenge.

It was three weeks ago, away at Osasuna, just before a trip to Russia to play Lokomotiv Moscow, that Simeone decided to leave Suarez resting at home and without him Atletico scored three times in a 3-1 victory.

Joao Felix, Marcos Llorente and Angel Correa shared attacking responsibilities and for all that Atletico still missed Suarez’s ability to hold the ball up for runners arriving from deep, the mix of Felix’s guile, the intensity of Correa and the electric pace of Llorente still caused untold problems for Osasuna.

Barcelona have better defensive resources but Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet will be no happier facing the Atletico fast show than Osasuna did.

And if the A-team can’t unlock Barcelona’s defence then Plan B may well now include Diego Costa.

The Brazilian born forward pulled up with a hamstring strain on October 17 away to Celta and has not played since.

He trained close to 100 per cent in midweek and if progress continues he could feature.

It’s a mistake to see them as like for like. Suarez wants to receive the ball in and around the area where he can hold it up in tight spaces and look for Joao Felix.

Costa is happy running into space although the degree to which he is no longer as effective at doing that as he used to be showed a month ago when it was one of those gallops beyond the Celta defence that tweaked his hamstring.

Costa or no Costa, Atletico have an early contender for LaLiga’s Player of the Season in Felix.

‘We’ll run more than ever but we will still try to play our game,’ the Portugal international said this week in the build-up to the biggest game of the season so far.

‘They like having the ball’, he added, with maybe a nod to Saturday’s tactics.

Of late Atletico have had more possession than at any time in their history under Simeone. The old philosophy of sit back and then attack on the break has been replaced by a new desire to take the game to the opposition.

But without Suarez and with his front three speedsters, Simeone could revert to old ways. But perhaps getting the best out of Felix, with or without Suarez, means not changing recent approaches.

With seven goals so far this season Felix is well on course to eclipse last year’s underwhelming first year at the club. He looks a completely different player and a big part of that is the way – by Simeone’s own admission – the team has changed its style of play to accommodate Suarez.

‘Luis needs people near him so he can play in areas where he can hurt teams and we are working on ways to do that,’ he said. Atletico are no longer strung out looking to defend deep but then launch counter attacks to lonely strikers.

They attack in numbers and have spent several games of late camped in rivals’ penalty areas – these are things not previously seen under Simeone. The degree to which he sticks to that will be fascinating.

On the one hand, if Suarez is the reason for the change, and Suarez is missing, then it makes sense to alter the game plan.

But if Felix also thrives when the team takes several steps forward and attacks in greater numbers then why wipe the smile off the 21-year-old’s face? Especially when you know keeping him happy is your best chance of getting that elusive first league victory over Barcelona.



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