Just days before a game that could save Atletico Madrid’s season, players got together for a barbecue at the team’s training camp.
They gathered after a practice session to unwind and share a relaxed meal by one of the training fields in the outskirts of Madrid.
It was time to unite the group and get everyone on the same page before what has become their biggest match of the season.
Atletico visits Barcelona on Saturday to try to keep alive its hopes of challenging for the Spanish league title and finishing a disappointing season on a high note.
A victory at Camp Nou Stadium will cut Barcelona’s lead to five points with seven matches remaining, giving Atletico a chance to make a late title run.
“As long as we have a chance, we have to remain ambitious and set high goals,” Atletico midfielder Rodrigo said. “We will try to make things difficult for them.”
Barcelona faltered by losing points at Villarreal in the previous round, and it will also have to worry about a difficult visit to Manchester United in the Champions League quarterfinals immediately after the Atletico match.
Atletico, meanwhile, has only the league to play for, and it is coming off two consecutive wins. It has momentum on its side, but it will be going to a venue where it hasn’t fared well in a long time.
It will need to end a 13-year unsuccessful streak at Camp Nou if it wants to have a realistic chance of contending for the title. It hasn’t been able to beat Barcelona there in 18 consecutive matches in all competitions, dating to 2006. In the league, Atletico hasn’t beaten Barcelona since a home triumph in 2010 — a run of 17 matches in a row in all venues.
“We know it’s complicated, but we will keep fighting,” Rodrigo said. “We will be playing against the best team in the league and it would be incredible to be able to cut into its lead.”
After holding on to France’s Antoine Griezmann and adding other players to an already competitive squad, Atletico began the season with high hopes. It started by winning the UEFA Super Cup against Real Madrid but fell short in other competitions, eliminated by Girona in the round of 16 of the Copa del Rey and by Juventus in the round of 16 of the Champions League.
“It honestly surprises me to see Atletico fighting for the lead or for second place in a league that has been dominated by Barcelona and Real Madrid for the last 10 years,” said coach Diego Simeone, who has never been able to win at Camp Nou since taking over Atletico at the end of 2011.
Simeone led Atletico to the 2014 league title and it was second last season, ahead of Real Madrid. It enters the weekend with a five-point lead over its city rival.
The coach may not be able to count on two of his top players on Saturday as forwards Alvaro Morata and Diego Costa are considered doubtful because of injuries.
Barcelona needed two late goals to salvage a 4-4 draw at Villarreal on Tuesday but remains unbeaten in 15 matches in all competitions. Its last league loss was in November against Real Betis at Camp Nou, and it had won seven straight before being held by Villarreal.
Coach Ernesto Valverde planned to rest Lionel Messi against Villarreal but had to put him in the match early in the second half after Barcelona squandered a two-goal lead. Messi scored in the 90th minute and Luis Suarez scored in injury time for the draw.
“We know Atletico is not going to give up,” Valverde said. “We know that it’s going to be difficult for us in every match from now until the end.”unb