Xavi and Dani Alves vs. Real Madrid's Left Flank
In the previous battle, Real Madrid created all of their three goals down the left flank. The main orchestrator was Angel Di Maria from left midfield, who was often free with a chance to cross. He created two goals but, had his teammates finished better, he could have easily handed out four assists. Crucially, Cristiano Ronaldo will not take up the left forward position, meaning Gareth Bale or Isco could start in his place. Potentially, Di Maria could be shifted to the right to make up for this.
Xavi does not have the legs anymore to shadow someone of Di Maria's stamina and speed, while Alves has some positioning issues. With Neymar on the right wing, Barcelona did not have the legs nor the fortitude to stop Madrid's left flank. Rumors are that Alexis Sanchez will start on the right today, a player who defensively is sounder than the man taking the spot in the last Clasico..
Considering these changes, Barça may be able to apply some duct tape to the massive leak.
Javier Mascherano and Hopefully Not Adriano vs. Karim Benzema
Again, two of the three goals Real Madrid scored in the past clasico were Karim Benzema's. And again, he could have had four. Both came via lofted crosses that the diminutive Mascherano could not cope with..
Perhaps Tata Martino would have liked to start Carles Puyol or Marc Bartra, who are stronger aerially. Surely he would have liked to have Gerard Pique, Barcelona's best defender when the ball's up high. But all three are injured, and there's only a small chance one of Puyol or Bartra could make it. Meanwhile Pique is almost definitely out.
That leaves three options: Alex Song. Sergio Busquets, or Adriano. It seems Martino prefers Adriano due to his speed, but if chosen, the fullback wouldn't be too much better than Mascherano in the air. That allows Benzema another chance to act as a target man.
Neymar vs. Dani Carvajal
If Alexis starts, Neymar will play on the left wing, a more natural spot for him. Playing there in the first Clasico, Neymar scored the opening goal. With Alvaro Arbeloa out, Dani Carvajal is the logical choice at right-back for Los Blancos. Carvajal is a promising player, but he's defensively weaker compared to Arbeloa. Barcelona have been able to beat him a few times this season, and they would again see it as an opening to attack.
Just don't count on it.
On the other hand, Neymar is not so strong defensively while Carvajal is probably a bit better on offense than Arbeloa. If Di Maria starts on the right, does Madrid's focal point switch flanks?
Lionel Messi vs. Pepe and Sergio Ramos
Messi provided a classic performance the last time these two teams met. But a string of subpar games have some questioning his attitude and form. Does he reclaim the throne or will his doubters be right?
Well, Pepe and Ramos are hoping it's the latter. With these two, it's always a big risk. Both are aggressive and talented. Both can make big plays, but also big blunders. They take risks. It's not surprising that in the Clasicos this season, Ramos gave away a penalty and was red carded in the second game, while Pepe was lucky not to be whistled for a penalty foul in the first.
Will referee Mateu Lahoz be as brave as Undiano Mallenco was in the last Clasico, in which, rightly or wrongly, he awarded a total of three penalties? One hopes that in any case, he does not become a talking point, and that the losing team this time can take the result gracefully.