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Barca vow to hit back vs Atletico – Cards stacked against Benfica for Bayern trip

Barcelona’s Argentinian defender Javier Mascherano (right), vies with Real Madrid’s forward Jese Rodriguez during the Spanish League ‘Clasico’ football match FC Barcelona vs Real Madrid CF at the Camp Nou Stadium in Barcelona on April 2. (AFP)
Barcelona’s Argentinian defender Javier Mascherano (right), vies with Real Madrid’s forward Jese Rodriguez during the Spanish League ‘Clasico’ football match FC Barcelona vs Real Madrid CF at the Camp Nou Stadium in Barcelona on April 2. (AFP)

BARCELONA, April 4, (RTRS): Barcelona’s 39-match unbeaten run may have ended with Saturday’s home defeat by Real Madrid but the European champions are adamant it was a temporary blip on their road to more glory.

Atletico Madrid will have taken real heart from their neighbours’ 2-1 victory at the Nou Camp as they go to the same venue in Tuesday’s quarter-final, first leg believing they can repeat their triumph over Barca at the same stage in 2014.

Yet, as the shockwaves reverberated through the European game after Barcelona’s late setback against 10-man Real, Barca captain Andres Iniesta told reporters: “This game won’t affect our mentality on Tuesday.

“Everyone is hurting after losing but we have to analyse what we did wrong so we don’t repeat the mistakes.”

Though Barcelona are six points clear of nearest pursuers Atletico at the top of la Liga, the attacking trident of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez lacked sharpness against Real.

It may have been a consequence of long journeys back from South America after representing their countries in World Cup qualifiers last week but Iniesta did not use that as an excuse.

Barca defender Gerard Pique, hoping to be part of the first team to achieve a domestic league and Cup and European Cup treble in consecutive years, added: “We have to move on, it’s a defeat but we are still alive in all competitions.

“Now we have to make sure we don’t fall into a slump, because we’re in a unique position.”

Atletico, who gave themselves an ideal send-off for the trip to Barca by thrashing Real Betis 5-1, are in confident mood even if recent history points to a Barca win.

The Catalans’ coach Luis Enrique has a perfect record against his Atletico counterpart Diego Simeone, having won all six of his games against the side from the capital.

Yet Barcelona know exactly what a formidable opponent the Argentine Simeone remains as he masterminded their exit two years ago, winning the quarter-final tie 2-1 on aggregate after securing a 1-1 draw in the second leg at the Nou Camp.

Atletico’s Spanish international Juanfran said this time, with his side enjoying the advantage of playing at home in the second leg, the primary aim was to stay in the tie.

“We’re going there feeling very strong and our aim is to play well over there,” the defender told Canal Plus.

“It’s all about coming back from the Nou Camp with the game still alive so we can try and win the tie at our place.”

Simeone, naturally still hoping to leave the Nou Camp with a crucial away goal, told a news conference he would reward Fernando Torres for his excellent run of five goals in seven league matches by starting the 32-year-old on Tuesday.

Torres has a fine record against Barcelona, having scored 10 goals against them in 14 games for Atletico and Chelsea.

His most celebrated strike was the decisive equaliser for eventual champions Chelsea at the Nou Camp in a Champions League semifinal, second leg in 2012 which knocked out the Catalans.

A quick look at past and current form might have Benfica wondering whether it is worth even turning up for their Champions League quarter-final tie at Bayern Munich on Tuesday.

Whether it be Bayern’s home record in Europe this season, their record against Portuguese teams or simply the head-to-head record between the Bavarians and Benfica, all the numbers point overwhelmingly to a Bayern win in the first leg.

Benfica will be all too aware that their great rivals Porto also faced Bayern at the same stage of the competition last year and were trounced 6-1 at the Allianz Area after shipping five goals in a 22-minute spell in the first half.

In fact, Bayern have won all nine of their previous two-legged knockout ties against Portuguese opposition, including three against Benfica. Their previous three home games against Benfica ended in one 5-1 and two 4-1 wins, and their overall record against the Eagles is four wins and two draws in six games.

Current form makes even worse reading for Benfica: Bayern have won all four home Champions League games this season, blasting 18 goals in the process.

However, Benfica, who won the old European Cup twice back in the 1960s, have made a habit of defying the odds in their first season under coach Rui Vitoria.

“Bayern are really difficult opponents but this team has already got over several barriers this season,” he said after Friday’s 5-1 league win over Braga.

“This team has achieved things which it appeared impossible to achieve and that is the spirit we will take into the game,” said Vitoria, whose side are looking to reach the semifinals for the first time since 1990.

Vitoria looked as if he would last only a few weeks in the job after Benfica began the season by losing three times to neighbours Sporting and were beaten by arch-rivals Porto.

Instead, they now find themselves five points clear at the top of the league and in the Champions League quarter-finals after winning 19 of their last 20 games in all competitions.

Their win over Zenit St Petersburg seemed highly unlikely when they were forced to take a makeshift defence to Russia to defend a 1-0 lead in the second leg, yet they came through with a 2-1 win.

Benfica boldly took the tie to their opponents in the first half of that game and may try to do so again on Tuesday.

Especially as Bayern have an injury crisis in defence, where Jerome Boateng and Holger Badstuber are ruled out and Medhi Benatia and Javi Martinez are doubtful.

Juventus showed in the previous round that Bayern can be vulnerable as they went 2-0 ahead inside half an hour. However, Bayern’s comeback, where they scored four goals to win 4-2 after extra time, was yet another ominous example of their strength at home.

“There’s not a lot to say,” said Vitoria after the draw was made. “It’s an incredibly difficult tie.”

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