El Clasico: Part Four. El Clasico: The Copa del Rey. El Clasico: Mourinho’s Revenge. There has been no end to the nicknames given to the most illustrious game in football, with that last one my favourite (it actually went to print!), but everyone knows that this game no longer requires an introduction. Iker Casillas stated that there have been so many Clasicos they are getting "tiring". Well, I guess it does get tiring when you lose continually...
Barcelona head into El Clasico on a six match unbeaten run at the Santiago Bernabeu, which for the record is better than Real who can only boast a three match undefeated streak at their own stadium. However, neither side has really impressed since returning from the winter break meaning that tomorrow’s match could be one of the most exciting Clasicos in memory.
Barcelona have no fresh injury concerns heading into the match, although there may be fitness concerns over one or two of the players given the short break since Sunday’s match against Real Betis. Can Carles Puyol maintain a high level of performance with little to no rest now that he is getting older? Will Lionel Messi be at 100%? These questions may be a little sensationalist, but it could be wise to temper expectations at this stage. After all, Real Madrid are clearly the form side heading into this match.
While Barcelona managed to win the Clasico in December, they were nearing their peak at the time. That run culminated in a 4-0 win over Santos, and it has been steadily downhill since then for FC Barcelona, especially when travelling is concerned. On the other hand, weren’t we preparing for the worst just over a month ago?
Looking at the calendar, the preparation was almost like-for-like. Instead of that loss to Getafe there is the draw with Espanyol. Merely judging by points, it could be argued that Barcelona are heading into this match in better stead compared to previous. Tactically, there have been slight issues, but this is a side that is engineered to win when it truly matters. Was it paramount that Barcelona beat Getafe and Espanyol? It seems much more important to me at least that Barcelona beat Santos and Real Madrid.
I am hesitant to break down the tactical battles in too much depth, there are simply too few ideas left that Barcelona could feasibly implement, but Real should be looking at Barcelona and recognising some weaknesses. Should Guardiola decide upon a 3-4-3 (I don’t think he will) there is space either on the wings or through the middle depending on the positioning of the centre-backs.
For example, here Carles Puyol and Eric Abidal have taken up a similar position to the match against Real Betis, and there is space ripe for exploitation either side of Gerard Pique, provided that the two wingers keep to the touchline. If they stick to the wing, then either Puyol or Abidal must leave their man free to cover in the middle, or they stick to their guns and there is space for Benzema to decoy one way with either Xabi Alonso or Mesut Ozil to take advantage.
If the wingers drift inside, the middle of the pitch will become congested, the two defenders can slot back in, and ultimately, Real Madrid will find it difficult to attack. When you take into consideration that Cristiano Ronaldo is one of those wingers, it is a likely scenario. If the Barcelona defense stays narrow, then they will be space down each wing, and therefore time for a cross. Barcelona are stereotypically poor at defending crosses, but I feel that would be the more preferable of the two situations.
However, if I were Jose Mourinho and Guardiola chose to implement the 3-4-3 against my side, I wouldn’t attack like that anyway. Personally, I would attempt to overload the Barcelona defense with four attackers (Di Maria, Ronaldo, Benzema and Higuain), thus sacrificing one midfielder which would alleviate the problems with suspension, making the defense stronger. But hey, as if Mourinho would attack Barcelona in a home match!
Regardless, I believe that over a two-legged encounter, Pep has the luxury of playing it safe in the first leg, which luckily is at the Bernabeu, before taking the game to them in the second leg. That would be the typical move from a coach, but as we well know, Guardiola is no ordinary coach. Equally, I would feel comfortable if he went for it in the first leg, to try and force Madrid to attack us at the Camp Nou like they did in November 2010. Whatever the case, Pep must strike the correct balance between the Barcelona style of play and being overtly attacking in this first leg.
Switching to that 3-4-3 could lead to a demolition of either side, and for that reason alone, Guardiola may opt for the 4-3-3. The last match against Real Betis was almost a test run for this game, the 3-4-3 failed against an attacking Real Betis side, so Pep switched back to the 4-3-3 and the team created more chances and were instantly more solid defensively. It was exactly what has been missing at various points in the season, that "safe" option as opposed to the spectacular.
Don’t get me wrong, the 3-4-3 is the formation for the future, but it (only?) works best when the team is at peak fitness. That way, the formation leads to a sterile domination of the opposition with possession stats upwards of 75%, and the opposition can’t get into the game to do any damage. When those possession stats creep down towards the 60% mark you know that you are dicing with death, allowing the other team to have possession when you have so few defenders on the field.
Starting in goal tomorrow baring illness will be Jose Pinto. Admittedly, it does give an early advantage to Madrid as their high-line of pressure is even more likely to force mistakes, but Pinto will be full of confidence. Pep could have just as easily put Valdes back in, but this shows that he has faith in the eccentric Spaniard, which is likely to show tomorrow in Pinto’s performance.
If he goes for the 4-3-3, I would expect your standard Barcelona back-line of Puyol, Pique, Dani Alves and Abidal. There are no injuries, no worries about form (compared to possible replacements) and therefore no reason why it wouldn’t be the full-strength defense. It’s the 3-4-3 that raises questions. Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique are nailed-on starters, but would Pep go for Abidal given his recent struggles in the same formation, or for Javier Mascherano? Maybe even Alves?
The three-man midfield is where more problems start, does Guardiola put Cesc Fabregas into the mix and push Andres Iniesta forward to left-wing? I think it needs to be taken into consideration. It has to be preferable compared to a front-three of Cesc, Messi and Sanchez as in that case either Messi or Cesc are forced out wide. Messi would become ineffectual, although perhaps a space on the right up against Marcelo could work in his favour.
There are so many permutations, it is simply staggering, but for me, Guardiola will opt for Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Cesc in midfield, with Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Alexis Sanchez taking their place in attack. That way, Cesc can switch freely with Messi and Iniesta, Sanchez can move into any of the three attacking positions, while Madrid will never quite know what to expect from Barcelona. Each attack could be different, there would be simply no let-up.
Match Prediction: I’m going for a 2-1 away win :)