New-look Barcelona attack takes on Atlético’s shaky defense
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Barcelona’s revamped attack will host an Atlético Madrid side seeking to restore its once vaunted defense on Sunday in the Spanish league at Camp Nou.
Struggling to score since the exits of Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann last summer, Barcelona went shopping during the January transfer window and brought in three forwards from the English Premier League.
In came former Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as a free agent. Adama Traoré came back to his boyhood club on loan from Wolverhampton, and Ferran Torres was secured on a transfer from Manchester City.
Torres has already played three matches for Barcelona, while Aubameyang and Traoré could make their debut against Atlético.
“I hope on Sunday I can show all my talent on the field,” said Traoré, who came up through Barcelona’s youth academy.
“I have grown physically, I have more experience, and I have played in another league that is more physical and faster. But I have never lost the essence of Barça.”
Now it falls on coach Xavi Hernández to figure out how to fit his new players into an already large squad that earlier in the season featured Memphis Depay and Ansu Fati in attack before they were injured.
Barcelona is used to dueling with Real Madrid for the league’s most potent attack but ranks seventh for scoring this season.
Xavi has had to be creative in forming his front lines.
Depay, who leads Barcelona with eight goals, and the 19-year-old Fati, the player the club is hoping can be a future star, are both out with nagging muscle injuries. In their place have been a mix of youths from Barcelona’s reserve team including Ferran Jutglà, Abde Ezzalzouli and Ilias Akhomach and the scarcely used Luuk de Jong.
De Jong took full advantage of finally getting a chance to play, scoring three goals in four appearances.
Even so, the club wanted to give Xavi more weapons up front, especially after contract renewal negotiations broke down with star signing Ousmane Dembélé.
Xavi hoped to rely heavily on Dembélé until the winger and club fell out over his refusal to accept its offer of a new contract before his current deal expires in June. The club told Dembélé to seek a transfer during January but he declined all offers. Now Xavi has to decide whether to play a player who looks certain to leave come summer.
The arrivals of Torres and Traoré, who can both play on the right wing, could mean Dembélé’s days as a Barcelona player are effectively over.
When Barcelona and Atlético met late last season at Camp Nou it was a key clash in the title fight that was won by the visitor.
This time, the top prize appears to be simply qualifying for next season’s Champions League. Atlético is in fourth place, the last qualifying berth, while Barcelona is just one point back in fifth.
Atlético acquired versatile midfielder Daniel Wass from Valencia and left back Reinildo Mandava from Lille in the winter window.
They will try to help Atlético reinforce a defense that normally ranks as the best in Spain but has proven brittle lately. Atlético has only the 11th-best defense of the 20-team league in goals allowed.
Real Madrid has opened up a 14-point gap over defending champion Atlético and the only rival in striking distance is Sevilla, which is four points back in second place.
Madrid hosts Granada on Sunday, a day after Sevilla is at Osasuna.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports