The more one watches FC Barcelona this season, the more apparent it becomes that Leo Messi makes it all work. He has participated in virtually every goal-scoring possession of late, usually providing the assist if not the goal itself. But thinking back to recent Clásicos, one recalls numerous possessions lost from the clever little feet of Leo Messi, specifically in the middle of the pitch against 2, 3, 4, or 5 defenders.
There's no denying that Messi is the best player in the world, and capable of seemingly impossible dribbling runs that leave packs of defenders flat-footed and the ball in the back of the net. But Real Madrid presents a particularly stout defensive line, especially with the recent addition of Michael Essien. Jose Mourinho knows that the first step to stopping Barcelona is to clog the middle of the pitch, and the last thing Barcelona needs on Sunday is to throw wave after wave of attacks against the brick wall of Madrid's central defense.
To break through the central defense directly, in my opinion, requires the presence of a central attacker to compliment Leo Messi, namely Cesc Fabregas or David Villa. These men can occupy the central defenders and are capable of exchanging one-two passes with Messi at high speed. Against Sevilla, all three goals came more or less in this fashion-up the middle, with Messi dishing and Cesc or Villa applying the finishing touch. Against Real Madrid, this is unlikely to work thanks to the personnel and tactics of both clubs.
Barcelona's starting XI may very well lack both Fabregas and Villa. With Iniesta back, it would be hard to argue for any midfield trio other than Xavi, Busquets, and Iniesta. Up top, Alexis and Messi are virtual locks, with Pedro and even Tello serious threats to Villa's chances at a start. Even if El Guaje did feature from kick-off, he isn't totally free to move into central attack, as a Barcelona winger simply must stretch the field laterally. And unless Iniesta is deployed on the left flank, Cesc is unlikely to see the field, at least at the opening kickoff.
All of this means that Messi will most likely be facing the Madrd central defense on his own. It's critical that he realize this from the get-go, and be ready and willing to pass. I would love to see Tello start on the left, and Pedro on the right, as these boys are capable of beating defenders one-on-one, and doing something productive with the space Madrid will surely provide on the flanks. Regardless of Tito's chosen strike-force, Messi drawing multiple defenders before slotting balls diagonally to the corners is the best recipe for goals against Real Madrid.
Barcelona is blessed with a brilliantly versatile and creative corps of players, but there should be no mistaking how strong and solid Real Madrid's central defense is, and thus FCB ought to proceed directly to either side of the likes of Pepe, Ramos, Alonso, Essien, and Khedira.
While both Iniesta and Xavi are capable of scoring goals by combining with Messi in attack, their greatest strength (in combination with Busquets), is quickly switching the ball from one side of the pitch to the other. They're like a magical bridge over stormy seas-before you know it the ball has made it through a mess of defenders and is rolling smartly into space on the opposite side of the pitch.
With wingmen like Alves and Alba, there are plenty of ways to get the ball from the side of the pitch to the back of the net-the key is to give them plenty of opportunities.
I've mentioned before the idea of risk in Barcelona's possession football, and how more often than not it's Messi who takes risks-be it an overly optimistic pass or an ill-advised solo run into the teeth of the defense. With a midfield of Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets, there is almost always an open man and a safe pass. Knowing that safe passes don't often lead to goals-and being an impetuous sort of footballer-Messi invariably forces the issue and goes for goal. If not for his bravery, Barcelona wouldn't be the same, but against Real Madrid the risk in losing possession is very high, and Lionel would do well to accept defeat in many of the small battles he wages single-handedly against central defenders, take the easy pass while it's still there, and trust his teammates to help him win the war.