Atletico Have 12th Man v Barcelona

There's only one referee in La Liga who knows that football is a contact sport - the good news is that he's in charge of physical Atletico v the fragile Barcelona...

Last Updated: 10/01/14 at 15:50 Post Comment

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It's fair to say that Espanyol boss Javier Aguirre likes a good swear session akin to all the fine people of the Spanish-speaking world. However, there is one subject matter that really gets the Mexican manager effing and blinding like a sailor hammering a nail through a gammy toe - La Liga referees. "I should have been sent off 162 times in this league," admitted Aguirre, having been sent off for the abuse of the match official in the clash against Osasuna, a crime that has been punished with a four-game touchline ban.

It is easy to see why Aguirre gets so frustrated in the face of Spanish officialdom, although this is a gentleman who poured abuse on Villarreal's club doctor during a game whilst coach of Atlético Madrid. "I thought he was the kitman," said Aguirre apologetically, as way of reasonable explanation.

Referees in La Liga are, by and large, abysmal. This is something that fans in all leagues around the world will no doubt claim, but rather than making incorrect decisions or supposedly favouring one team over another, Spanish officials do not seem to know the rules of the game at all. In La Primera, all tackles are fouls, the concept of ball-to-hand is baffling and any kind of contact in the area is an instant penalty, especially if either Barcelona or Real Madrid are on the receiving end.

However, there is one bright light in La Liga - a man from Valencia called Antonio Mateu Lahoz, the gentleman in charge of Saturday's game between Atlético and Barcelona. This is a match official who is both praised and condemned in Spain for being 'English' in his style. Many a tumbling footballer has been left staring at his back, frantically waving arms in the air with apoplectic eyes on stalks as Lahoz runs off having ignored flimsy appeals for fouls.

Lahoz could be a hugely important ally in Atlético Madrid's attempts to both beat Barcelona on Saturday night and win the league title, the next logical step. The game-plan from the Rojiblancos is set to mirror that of the Super Cup clashes in the summer, which produced two draws and saw Barcelona stretched to breaking point. That strategy was to hassle the opposition to the point of illegality using each body appendage possible, from feet to elbows. Whenever a Barca player received the ball, a swarm of Atlético players swarmed on him, often knocking the protagonist to the ground in the process. Nobody from the Catalan club with his back to goal was given a sniff of a chance of turning.

Unsurprisingly, Leo Messi was the most to suffer. In one particularly defining moment, the forward took the ball from 30 yards out, looked up to see six Atlético players just waiting for him to launch on a mazy run. Realising that it would end in a general kicking from the gathered gang and thinking better of it, the Argentinean elected to play a square ball instead.

Most referees would consider all this physical play from Atlético as thuggish rough-housing. Indeed, it is one of the reasons that Spanish teams sometimes struggle to adapt in the more robust Champions League, but Saturday's man in the middle is one of the last officials standing in Spain to remember that football is a contact sport. This could well make Tata Martino reconsider playing Messi in the weekend's huge match, with him only just returning from the injury that saw him out from the beginning of November.

Although a grinning Messi looked in fine fettle during a half-hour spell in a midweek cup clash against Getafe that produced two goals and one particularly brilliant accelerating run, throwing the footballer into the lion's den that is Atlético's lethal defence might be too much of a risk, especially when the option of keeping a previously prolific forward line of Cesc Fabregas, Alexis Sánchez and Pedro together is a perfectly good idea, even with the addition of Neymar.

Whilst Saturday's clash may not be season-defining with the current gap between the two teams being just goal difference - which will eventually become head-to-head - the game is set to be a fascinating study in styles with Atlético's industry and intensity facing Barcelona's flair and forward play.

The match is set to be even more of a spectacle, due to the chosen referee, who is set to allow the 22 footballers on the field get on with the game, rather than stop and start the action for 90 minutes. This is set to be a huge advantage to the leaner, fitter Atlético Madrid who will be starting Saturday's clash in the Vicente Calderón almost with a one-man advantage.

Tim Stannard - follow him on Twitter here...

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