El Clasico: Real Madrid vs FC Barcelona: Match Preview

Bow down...

Five wins, one draw and no defeats. This is the record Pep Guardiola puts on the line this Saturday when he selects his team to face Real Madrid. Two wins and one draw. That is his record at the Bernabeu, also on the line this Saturday evening. Moving onto goals scored/conceded, the records stand at 17-3 and 9-3 respectively; far better than any other manager, probably at any point in history.

Of course these only include the league matches between the two, and if we include cup matches at the Bernabeu the record remains positive. Three wins and two draws, with a further four goals scored, taking the goals tally to 13-5. Yet some people consider Real Madrid to be the favourites, citing statistics as their reason?

Breaking those statistics down further, the story makes for grim reading if you are a Madridista. In the five matches at the Bernabeu where Barcelona have been managed by Pep Guardiola, the away team has managed an average of 2.6 goals per game, while Los Blancos have only managed an average of one. Even if you take out the famous 6-2, the statistics still favour the Blaugrana. Only twice have Madrid managed to score twice (once in the 6-2) at home against Guardiola, while Barcelona have scored two on all but one occasion.

However, the pundits and media luminaries cite Madrid’s current form as the clincher; surely my statistics go out the window? Well, I beg to differ. Cast your mind back to the 2008/09 season and the Real Madrid side coached by Juande Ramos. That was a side playing catch-up to Barcelona, and even a 17 game unbeaten streak (with 16 wins) in the League before El Clasico could not swing the tide in their favour. Playing host to an FC Barcelona side that could have been regarded as the underdogs; they ended up losing 6-2.

Now we get to the 2009/10 season, perhaps the closest in memory. Manuel Pellegrini had built up a team that were difficult to beat, and en route to the Clasico at the Bernabeu, they had won 12 straight matches in La Liga, two more than this current side. They sat atop the table, but still they lost out to the visitors, who returned to Cataluña with a 2-0 win and top spot in the league.

How about last season? Jose Mourinho’s side started the season well, remaining unbeaten in their first 12 matches of the season. Heading into El Clasico they were top of the table, and again there was a hint of doubt about whether or not the Blaugrana could triumph. Manita anyone?

Reading through all of the above as a Madrid fan, perhaps even as a Culé, you will fail to see the point. After all, statistics are often distorted by the writer to suit their agenda and as the old saying goes, "There are three types of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics." However, if statistics and past form are the reason Madrid are favoured to win, why aren’t they the reason why Barcelona are going to win?

El Clasico is a wonderful thing; the formbooks go out the window, and what we are left with is a football match between two great teams. Regardless of who they have or have not beat over the preceding 15 matches, either side could win, and win handsomely. At the end of the match we are left (almost certainly) with a victor, whom we can crown as the best team on that day, and possibly the best in Spain.

In that sense, I understand why Real fans are ever so optimistic. On this given day and probably any time in the past few months, Madrid have been and are the better side, but the key factor is that they may not be tomorrow evening. In my (biased) opinion, Barcelona are far from the underdogs.

Guardiola has a tough decision ahead regarding his tactical setup as I discussed yesterday, and his choice will definitely affect Barcelona’s chances. On the other hand, the tactics are not the only determinant of victory: Barcelona need to defend better. This may seem odd considering the Blaugrana’s league leading defense, but Madrid will understand where the weak points are, and how to exploit them.

According to most, Real have a distinct advantage in terms of pace. This pace will mostly be utilised on the counter-attacks, and on any run down the wing. In my opinion, the pace itself is not a huge threat. Dani Alves is quick enough to catch anyone, same with Eric Abidal, while Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique make up for their lack of pace with outstanding tactical nous. What I am concerned about is what Madrid does, after the pace has got them into an advantageous position.

Despite claims to the contrary, this defense is sufficient at dealing with high crosses into the box, so they are not my concern, but instead I fear the cutback. Watching each Barcelona draw along the course of this season there is a common theme in each goal conceded. Look at Ander Herrera’s goal at San Mames, or the Valencia goals at the Mestalla. Each were assisted by either a cutback or a low cross along the six yard box. With Barcelona’s defense retreating fast to defend the counter attack, there will be plenty of space for Madrid to engineer a cutback to one of their midfielders, and it is something Guardiola may have to address.

However, for all this talk surrounding Madrid, just when have they faced a team like Barcelona this season? Aside from the Supercopa, they have not. It is all well and good beating teams like Osasuna with 70% possession, but that tells us nothing about the Clasico. Madrid were able to keep possession and as a result they had more chances, which led to more goals and more mistakes I am keen to add.

Just how well will they play with <40% possession? What if Mourinho completely concedes the midfield like he did with Inter? Just how will the team cope with around 20% possession? There are still a lot of question marks around Real Madrid. Is the team still mentally fragile? Will they start to lose their temper if Barcelona go ahead and keep possession?

Even more worrying for Mourinho is the influence of the crowd. They are getting used to heavy wins and increased possession. Will they get on Mourinho’s back if Barcelona scores? In fact, even the referee will impact upon Madrid’s game if he awards a few more fouls to the visitors, will they over-react in that situation?

Looking at Barcelona, there is only one question: Will the team perform as well as they can? Whatever the formation, whoever starts, the style of play remains the same. They keep possession, press the opposition and remain patient whatever the situation as they were trained that way from an early age, or they have played in this system for a couple of years. The advantage remains with Barcelona in this sense, even if Real Madrid are favourites.

Match Prediction: Don’t want to jinx it :P but a win would put Barcelona top (for a little while at least)

For more on El Clasico, check out the SBNation coverage of Real Madrid vs Barcelona

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