FC Barcelona travel to the capital tomorrow where they will face arch-rivals Real Madrid in the first-leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final. The Blaugrana suffered defeat in their last trip to the Santiago Bernabeu, losing 2-1 in the second-leg of the Spanish Supercopa; although a lot has changed in the five months since that loss. For starters, Barcelona have amassed what could be an insurmountable 15 point lead over Los Blancos in La Liga and as if that wasn’t enough, there are also rumours of a rift in the Real Madrid dressing room.
Yes, there is an enormous point differential between the two sides and yes, Real Madrid will have to contend with a number of injuries, but Jose Mourinho is still under massive pressure to deliver a favourable result tomorrow. Aside from one or two notable exceptions, Los Blancos have mostly fallen short against Barcelona since Frank Rijkaard’s departure; and another heavy defeat similar to the 2-6, or the infamous Manita could spell the end of The Special One’s tenure. After all, if Mourinho cannot mastermind a victory in the Copa del Rey, then what chance does he stand of guiding Real Madrid to La Decima?
Thankfully, Barcelona head into tomorrow’s match with a full complement of players, although they will be without their coach Tito Vilanova, who is away in New York undergoing further treatment. In his absence, Jordi Roura is set to lead the team in what will be his first Clasico in charge of the Blaugrana. However, Roura is unlikely to pick tomorrow’s starting XI – and according to some reports, Tito is in constant contact with his backroom staff all throughout the game. Therefore, in that sense it’s unlikely to be an advantage for Real Madrid and Jose Mourinho.
While there are no injuries to speak of, Eric Abidal remains sidelined as he enters the final stage of his recovery from a liver transplant and Isaac Cuenca, Martin Montoya and Cristian Tello have all been left out of the 19-man squad for various reasons.
Moving onto the squad itself, Jose Manuel Pinto is expected continue his run as Barça’s number one Copa del Rey keeper by starting in goal tomorrow ahead of Victor Valdés. Pinto has not kept a clean sheet against Los Blancos in his time with the Catalans, and to be completely honest, few expect him to start tomorrow. Sure, Real have to contend with a number of injuries and suspensions, but they still have Cristiano Ronaldo. They still have Karim Benzema, Mesut Ozil and against all the odds, they still have Kaka. With that amount of talent in attack, I’d say it’s almost certain that Real score tomorrow.
On the other hand, if any team could stop Madrid from scoring, it would have to be Barcelona. Dani Alves is set to start at right-back and is steadily improving at both ends of the pitch. On his day, Alves is good enough to stop Cristiano Ronaldo, although there are many who would argue that Alves is past his best. Whether that’s true or not, Alves has a key part to play in tomorrow’s match, not only as the first line of defense against Cristiano Ronaldo, but also at the offensive end. Marcelo is hardly renowned for being a lockdown defender, and Alves could run riot on the overlap; just as he did against Osasuna on Sunday.
Gerard Piqué is likely to start on his return from suspension and has been in inspired form since Tito Vilanova took charge. A few shaky appearances aside, Piqué has helped shore up the Barça defense and he also plays a crucial part offensively as well thanks to his immense ability with the ball at his feet. With any luck, Piqué will be joined in defense by Carles Puyol, who missed each of the last three Clasicos through injury. Given that Barça conceded six goals in total over those three matches, Puyol’s "return" to El Clasico action could have a massive effect on the final result.
At left-back, Jordi Alba should start, especially after sitting out Sunday’s 5-1 win over Osasuna; however, the Catalan is yet to experience victory in this fixture. An integral part of the starting XI under Tito Vilanova, much like Alves, Alba has a huge part to play in tomorrow’s match. With Angel di Maria suspended, Alba is likely to have free reign to maraud up and down the left-flank where he will likely form a deadly partnership with Andrés Iniesta, but will he be able to perform his defensive duties as well? With no straight-forward substitute in their squad, Real Madrid may choose to start either Mesut Ozil or Jose Callejon in that right-wing berth; does Alba have the defensive discipline to deal with the threat posed by either player?
At pivote, Sergio Busquets will start, and thanks to Di Maria’s suspension, he may not even have to deal with Mesut Ozil – at least directly. Callejon could start on the right, but I think Mourinho will opt for a trivote, which would force Ozil out to the right-hand side of attack. If that’s the case, then expect Busquets to step forward and dictate the tempo of the game, although based on current form, he could well dominate the midfield regardless of Ozil’s position.
Joining Busi in midfield, I fully expect Barça to start with Xavi Hernández and Cesc Fàbregas, who have been in stunning form this season. Xavi is always excellent, but Cesc has recovered from a disappointing end to last season and really grow into that starting role. With eight goals and ten assists to his name, Fàbregas is one of Barcelona’s most productive players; hopefully he can remind us of that fact tomorrow evening.
That leaves the attack, and earlier, we asked you who you think Barcelona should start in attack. While there were a few votes for David Villa, the vast majority recommended that Barça start with Andrés Iniesta and Pedro Rodriguez in attack. I suppose I gave it away by naming Fàbregas in my preferred midfield, but I also advocate the Pedro-Messi-Iniesta trident. It allows Iniesta to create more chances, which helps out Lionel Messi who tends to enjoy scoring. So often last season, Messi – devoid of any real service – was forced to act as the creator in "big games", and this took its toll on his scoring record. You know what they say, you can have too much of a good thing but with Iniesta by his side, Messi is free to drift in and out of the game whenever he pleases, which generally works to good effect. Certainly, I can’t argue with his other-worldly scoring record.
Luis outlined Jose Mourinho’s selection problems earlier in the week, and in order to counter-act those suspensions/injuries, I have a sneaking suspicion that Mourinho will bring back our old friend, the "trivote". It’s only a hunch mind you; and the majority of the world’s media is likely to disagree, but it does make sense. With Di Maria suspended, Mourinho will have to either start Jose Callejon, or move an attacking midfielder out to the wing – probably Mesut Ozil. Personally, I don’t think that Callejon is the ideal player for the task at hand – a centre-forward by trade, there are question marks over his willingness to track back over the full 90 minutes against Jordi Alba for instance.
On the other hand, Ozil is just as unlikely to track back, and let’s be frank here, does anyone really think that Luka Modric will start tomorrow’s match? As a Culé, I sure hope he does, but the bottom-line is that Luka is unlikely to start. Therefore, if he wants to play Ozil, but is worried about Jordi Alba – which he should be – what option does he have other than to play the trivote?
But there is a problem. Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira virtually pick themselves, but who would start with them? Michael Essien? Therein lies the issue, Mourinho might not have the numbers to start with a trivote and in the end it comes down to his personal preference. Does he concede the midfield entirely and start Essien? Does he opt for pace and set his team up to play on the counter with Callejon, or does he try and fight fire with fire by starting Luka Modric and Mesut Ozil?
In attack, Mourinho also has to decide between Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain; which is possibly one of the best selection dilemmas that a coach could have and who does he choose in goal? His new favourite Antonio Adan, or new signing Diego Lopez?
Real Madrid: WDWWDW
FC Barcelona 2-2 Real Madrid – 7th October 2012 – La Liga
A brace from Cristiano Ronaldo cancelled out a well-taken brace from Lionel Messi in what was an entertaining Clasico at the Camp Nou.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Pinto; Alves, Puyol, Piqué, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Fàbregas; Pedro, Messi. Iniesta
Real Madrid (4-2-3-1): Adan; Arbeloa, Varane, Albiol, Marcelo; Khedira, Alonso; Callejon, Ozil, Ronaldo; Benzema
It all hinges on Mourinho’s selection, but I’m going for a Barça win; possibly with Messi breaking Di Stefano’s long-standing record. A conservative 2-1 Barça for me.