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Lionel Messi's Timely Return Sets Up Titanic Clash vs. Atletico Madrid

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 08:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona duels for the ball with Mehdi Lacen of Getafe CF during the Copa del Rey round of 16 first leg match between FC Barcelona and Getafe CF at Camp Nou on January 8, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
David Ramos/Getty Images
Sam TigheWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterJanuary 9, 2014

Barcelona destroyed Getafe, 4-0, on Wednesday night, taking a commanding lead in the two-legged Copa del Rey tie.

The Camp Nou was abuzz after Cesc Fabregas had put the home side in control with two goals—one early on and one from the penalty spot—but the biggest cheer of the night came when Lionel Messi made his long-awaited return from injury, replacing Andres Iniesta in the 64th minute.

As per Total Barca's Youssef Awwad, Gerardo Martino had stated that Leo was "ready to go" after coming through several full training sessions without pain—and boy, did the Argentine show it from the moment he came on.

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He bagged a brace inside the last two minutes to put this tie, despite the presence of a second leg, firmly to bed; his first strike was a rolled, composed finish into the corner, and his second was a delightful run-in behind, jink inside and curled shot into the top corner.

It's the Messi we know and adore, and to be frank, his return could not have come at a better time.

Barca lost just two games during his two-month absence—one a meaningless Champions League tie against Ajax and one at the new San Mames against Athletic Club.

Throughout that period, Barca avoided games against their two close rivals in the table—Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid—but this weekend we will see the Blaugrana travel to the Vicente Calderon and take on Los Colchoneros.

With both sides at relative full strength and with key players intact, it's a great chance to see which one is performing better in an early Liga title tilt.

Atletico Madrid have been the most consistent Spanish team in football this season across all competitions, and Diego Simeone's tactics (explained here) have an advantage over Barca's style of play.

101greatgoals.com

The 4-4-2 (or 4-2-2-2) formation he favours will jam the centre of the pitch with a deep midfield line, forcing Barca outside to take on full-backs Juanfran and Filipe Luis and cross.

You don't fancy Alexis Sanchez or Messi to get much aerial joy out of Miranda and Diego Godin, but that's where Messi's fancy footwork, agility and incredible dribbling talents come to the fore, as he is perhaps the only man in the world capable of slicing up Gabi's fearsome defensive lines.

Los Colchoneros have been too stubborn for almost every team to break down this season. They even managed to turn over their rival, Real, in their own backyard.

With Diego Costa, Koke, Arda Turan et al fit to face Messi, Iniesta, Alexis et al, we will get a strong feel for who can go on to win the Liga title at season's end.

There are three critical points up for grabs here, and drawing Los Blancos will close the gap for Barcelona.

 

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