- Associated Press - Friday, April 5, 2019

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) - Ernesto Valverde has a message for his players before Barcelona hosts Atletico Madrid on Saturday in a match that will go a long way toward deciding the Spanish league title.

Mind the gap - in defense.

Barcelona’s back line was exposed on several occasions by Villarreal on Tuesday, when Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez each scored late to rescue a 4-4 draw and limit the damage to Barcelona’s lead over Atletico atop the standings.

Valverde is now hoping to use that poor team performance, in which it was bailed out by the brilliance of its strikers, to ensure Barcelona keeps Atletico in check at Camp Nou Stadium.

“The other day we didn’t play well. We were disorganized in attack and that made us suffer in defense,” Valverde said. “Any adversary who watched the match saw a way to attack us by looking to play long balls into space behind our lines.”

Barcelona will be boosted by the return of its best defender, Gerard Pique, who rested against Villarreal so he wouldn’t risk picking up a fifth yellow card and thus a suspension against Atletico. Replacement Samuel Umtiti, who is far from his peak fitness after missing most of the season with a knee injury, struggled to keep up with the pace of Villarreal’s speedy forwards.

Against Atletico, Barcelona will face Antoine Griezmann and Alvaro Morata in attack. Both are players who thrive in open space and don’t need much to generate scoring chances.

“We are going up against quick players, and (Pique) will help us a lot,” Valverde said.

Valverde expects Atletico to pick its moments to pressure up the field to try to provoke a costly passing error by Barcelona near its goal, and then alternate that tactic with holding back and waiting to surprise on a counterattack.

“They pressure very well - sometimes they do it at the start of the match, other times they wait,” Valverde said. “Sometimes they let you think that you are dominating them with the ball so they can strike on the break. And they have great passers to start a counterattack in Koke or Saul (Niguez). We will see both options.”

But of course, if the match turns against them, Barcelona always has Messi.

The club’s all-time leading scorer has been spectacular recently. He leads the league with 32 goals through 30 rounds and has nine goals in his last five games, including scoring from free kicks in his last three outings.

“The word isn’t fear. It’s respect,” Atletico coach Diego Simeone said of Messi. “He is pure quality. There are moments when you need to elevate your precision, and that is what Messi is doing.”

Atletico’s greatest achievement under Simeone happened in 2014, when it beat the odds by winning the Liga title after earning a 1-1 draw at Barcelona in a winner-take-all showdown in the final game.

Otherwise, Barcelona has been a source of frustration. Atletico hasn’t won in 18 consecutive visits to the Catalan capital.

Barcelona leads Atletico by eight points with eight matches remaining, so it is practically a must-win for Atletico if it wants to keep alive its title challenge.

“The only realistic option we have is to win tomorrow,” Simeone said.


More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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