FC Barcelona face the toughest test of their season so far tomorrow, as they prepare to welcome eternal rivals Real Madrid to the Camp Nou for the first Clasico of the season. After nine matches, the Blaugrana sit atop of La Liga having amassed 25 points out of a possible 27 – that’s three more points than Carlo Ancelotti’s superstar squad have mustered – and with a win tomorrow, Barça would extend their lead over Los Blancos to a staggering six points.
However, any slip-up would not only serve to boost the morale of the visiting Merengues, but it could also open the door for second-place Atletico Madrid, who surprisingly wasted their chance to go top of La Liga last weekend. Travelling to Catalunya on Saturday evening, Diego Simeone’s side knew that a win would see them leapfrog the Blaugrana, only for Barça’s city rivals Espanyol to shock Los Colchoneros with a 1-0 win.
Will we see similar drama in the Catalan capital tomorrow?
Gerardo Martino has been sweating this week on the fitness of key centre-back Gerard Piqué, who picked up a minor muscle injury in the club’s UEFA Champions League draw with AC Milan at the San Siro. While some "Culés" rejoiced at the news, Piqué has made a full recovery and is expected to retain his place in the starting XI – and crucially so. The elegant Catalan defender provides a natural balance to the defense, particularly when paired with club captain Carles Puyol, who made his triumphant return from injury last weekend with a composed performance against Osasuna.
Even after seven months on the sidelines, Puyol didn’t put a single foot wrong over the course of the 90 minutes – playing himself into contention for a starting berth tomorrow. His focus, steely determination and experience will markedly improve the team, hopefully enabling Barcelona to cut down on some of the errors that have cost them the spoils in recent Clasicos.
Provided that they start in the centre of defense, Puyol and Piqué are expected to be joined in the backline by the bulk of Barça’s Brazilian contingent; of course I’m talking about Dani Alves and Adriano Correia. Both proven match-winners in their own right, Alves and Adriano will be tasked with the unenviable job of stopping Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel di Maria – Real Madrid’s best performers under Carlo Ancelotti. And if by chance one of them doesn’t start, the Brazilians will be forced to contend with the world’s most expensive player, Gareth Bale instead.
As if defending their flank wasn’t hard enough, both Alves and Adriano will also be expected to contribute to the Barcelona attack, providing width and penetration against what could be a deep defensive line.
And that’s why Sergio Busquets is such a crucial player in this Barcelona team. It was a key feature of Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering side, and it was evident once again in last weekend’s draw with Osasuna – Sergio Busquets often dropped back into defense to form a three-man backline, liberating the two full-backs who could then push forward without fear of repercussions.
That’s not to say that Real Madrid will be as passive as Osasuna, but you surely get the picture.
It’s a bold move from a tactical point of view – isolating the two central defenders up against a speedy Real attack is far from ideal, but offensively, those extra "attackers" and perhaps more pertinently, that movement could prove pivotal at the other end. I mean who wouldn’t fancy Barcelona’s chance on the overlap with Neymar and Adriano doubling up against Alvaro Arbeloa?
On the other hand, Busquets’ defensive responsibilities heaps more pressure on the shoulders of veteran midfielder Xavi Hernández, who will be forced to take a more central role in proceedings if Busquets does drop a little deeper.
In years gone by, Xavi was the maestro, he was the creator; the puto jefe against Real Madrid. Home or away, it didn’t matter; Xavi could thread a pass through the eye of the needle, and onlookers have noted that the frequency with which Xavi threads those passes through the eye of a needle is decreasing. "Father time," they say, "has finally caught up with Barça’s midfield metronome".
However, the very same people fail to acknowledge that the eye of that needle is getting smaller and smaller with each passing season – and perhaps that’s the real reason behind Xavi’s "decline". Given the time and space that he was afforded in the "glory years", Xavi continues to excel – and if Carlo Ancelotti approaches tomorrow’s match with a more "open" gameplan, Xavi and FC Barcelona could reap the rewards.
Andrés Iniesta and Cesc Fàbregas will battle it out for the remaining midfield spot, which perhaps demonstrates that it’s Iniesta, not Xavi who has seen his form dip in recent weeks. A little over a year ago, Iniesta was the newly-crowned Best Player in Europe and now his place in Martino’s ideal XI could be under credible threat. On reputation alone, Iniesta should start tomorrow, but if Martino is feeling particularly bold, it’d be tough to rule out a start for Fàbregas.
In attack, Lionel Messi bids to become the clear top-scorer in El Clasico history, as he shares that honour at present with fellow Argentine, Alfredo di Stefano. We witnessed last season just how crucial Messi is to our team’s chances – even the slightest injury to the little magician threatened to completely derail our season – and his brace in the first league Clasico of the season was one of the season’s highlights. Cometh the hour, cometh the man – expect Messi to provide us with some fireworks tomorrow.
After an electric start to his career with Barcelona, there was a time when we would have said the same of Neymar, but it appears as though the hectic European schedule is beginning to take its toll on his young legs. There are a few "experts" who claim that he needs to stay patient and show a little more tactical discipline, isolating himself out on the wing – but that’s just naive. A mere glance at Alexis Sánchez, Pedro or David Villa demonstrates how ineffective that approach can be – while Lionel Messi is living proof that an individual isn’t required to stick to a rigid position.
In his rise to prominence, Messi started on the right-wing, gradually evolving his role into the position that he finds himself in today – and Neymar has the scope to follow a similar path. Plus, Alexis Sánchez and/or Pedro are available to provide that tactical discipline if necessary.
While Carlos Ancelotti is preaching the importance of courage and personality, it is expected that he will field a conservative line-up tomorrow, focused more on stopping Barcelona than exerting any sort of control over the actual match itself. For the Italian, a loss could prove devastating, particularly given the volatility of a club like Real Madrid. As a result, the media are suggesting that Ancelotti will opt for a "trivote" of sorts, fielding Luka Modric alongside Sami Khedira and Asier Illarramendi as opposed to a natural #10 like Isco.
In defense, Los Blancos will be able to count on the supremely talented Raphael Varane, who is likely to partner Sergio Ramos in the centre of defense. Alvaro Arbeloa is tipped to retain his place ahead of the younger, more mobile Dani Carvajal while Marcelo will start at left-back. The Brazilian is an incredibly gifted player – but defensively, he leaves a lot to be desired and Barcelona may fancy their chances of exploiting his positional naivety. Coupled with Arbeloa’s well-documented struggles with Neymar, Barcelona might just have the advantage on the wings.
Offensively, Gareth Bale could make his Clasico debut, but it’s expected that the Welshman will start on the bench – although some people have speculated that Bale could either take up a more central role (similar to his position with Tottenham Hotspur in the latter stages of last season), or start on either flank, forcing Cristiano Ronaldo into a more traditional role as a #9. Or Ancelotti could be dull and start Bale ahead of di Maria; at this point it’s difficult to judge.
Real Madrid: WLWWWW
Real Madrid 2-1 FC Barcelona – 2nd March 2013 – La Liga
Goals from Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos earned Real Madrid a deserved victory in front of the jubilant Santiago Bernabeu faithful, as Lionel Messi’s second-half equaliser ultimately wasn’t enough to secure a share of the points.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Adriano; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Sánchez, Messi, Neymar
Real Madrid (4-2-3-1): Lopez; Arbeloa, Ramos, Varane, Marcelo; Illarramendi, Khedira; di Maria, Modric, Ronaldo; Benzema
Barcelona haven’t won a Clasico in over a year, and their last La Liga victory over Los Blancos was way back in 2011. I have a feeling that wait will end tomorrow – and in some style. I’m plumping for a 3-1 home win. ¡Visca el Barça!
More from Barca Blaugranes:
- FC Barcelona News: 25 October 2013; Jonathan Dos Santos Out for 6 Months, Barca Agree to Gatorade Partnership
- La Liga Clasico: Barcelona vs. Real Madrid Preview with Managing Madrid
- FC Barcelona News: 24 October 2013; Gerard Pique a Doubt for El Clasico, Jonathan Dos Santos Injures ACL
- UEFA Champions League: FC Barcelona 1-1 AC Milan: Player Ratings
- FC Barcelona News: 23 October 2013; AC Milan Hold Barça to a Draw, Juvenil A Rout Milan in Youth League