With just two days to go, the anticipation for the world’s biggest game, El Clasico, couldn’t be higher. After both sides, FC Barcelona & Real Madrid have defeated their respective opponents (Shakhtar Donetsk & Tottenham Hotspurs) in the knock-out stages of the UEFA Champions League, Saturday’s match will be the first of four Clasico’s within the span of 18 days.
The exit of Shakhtar Donetsk and Tottenham Hotspurs means that not only will the UEFA Champions League semi-final be an all-Spanish affair, but two mouth-watering Clasico encounters over two legs in their battle for European supremacy.
One Clasico creates a media-frenzy; now imagine four within a couple of weeks. Furthermore, these Clasico’s have a direct impact on all three competitions (La Liga, the Copa del Rey & the Champions League).
The Merengue head into Saturday’s La Liga clash with an eight-point deficit against their eternal rivals, FC Barcelona. Neither a draw nor defeat is an acceptable result if Real Madrid is to end the Blaugrana’s stranglehold on the Primera Division.
Having witnessed FC Barcelona accumulating the treble just two years ago, the Spanish capital club is just as motivated as any side to match this achievement.
Nevertheless, FC Barcelona own treble hopes are still very much alive. And although the Blaugrana have to travel to the most hostile of environments, the Santiago Bernabeu, they presumably hold the psychological advantage over their archrivals, having won all their encounters since Pep Guardiola’s appointment.
In Jose Mourinho, however, Pep Guardiola & FC Barcelona will have to face one the finest managers, some even go as far and champion the self-proclaimed "Special One" the greatest manager of them all.
Since this year is almost devoid of major football tournaments bar the Copa America, the Clasico’s and the UEFA Champions League final can be considered THE highlights of 2011.
1. How will the (likely) absence of Carles Puyol influence the Clasico?
Gabriel Roberts: Greatly. Barcelona has sorely missed Puyol in the back, and with Madrid's strikeforce, things could get very dicey for the Blaugrana. Puyol is also team captain and an icon of Catalunya. He gets up like no other for Clasicos, and rarely disappoints.
Bostjan Cernensek: Puyol will be sorely missed, but hopefully he won't miss all four Clasicos. The defense is severely outnumbered right now and the suspension of Mascherano doesn't help. But Puyol's influence goes far beyond the position he plays; he wears his heart on his sleeve and serves as an example to every player on the field.
Arron Duckling: Puyol's absence will have a huge effect, he is usually the calming influence on the side, and fans (see the Figo incident). He also has Ronaldo's number, and if no-one else can stop him, it could prove disasterous for the Blaugrana. Then again, he could return for the Copa final, and that would be excellent news.
Paul Udani: Huge. Carles Puyol may not be what he once was, but he is still the heart of this Barcelona team. His presence seems to have a calming effect on the team, particularly Pique. Pique has looked nervy when Puyol is not there. And let's not get into the Milito business, we all know how badly we want him to stay on the bench.
Shehryar Khan: It is always a worry when your captain's not around for the big games but then again Barcelona have done well without him and the new back-line has somewhat settled in. It could actually have been a little awkward for him had he made his return in a Clasico. I'm still hoping that he's back soon though and a happy 33rd birthday to him.
Adi-Oula Sebastian: As far as center back partnerships go, Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol form one of the most formidable pairings in world football. Over the last couple of years the pair has proven their value for both, FC Barcelona & Spain. That said, without Carles Puyol besides him, Gerard Pique has looked anything like the world-class center back that he is/can be.
Although his form has gradually improved in recent weeks, there are question marks over his ability to command the defense. Without Puyol and a decent cover, it’ll be up to Barca’s midfield to maintain possession and not to give away cheap balls.
2. Will Lionel Messi finally score against a Jose Mourinho managed team and/or will CR7 break his duck against FC Barcelona?
BC: I think both will score. Both of them have gone way longer without scoring against their problematic team/coach than they should considering their abilities to score and it's time both droughts end. However, if Ronaldo's continues I don't mind.
AD: With 4 games to do so, I think it is inevitable that both will score. With that being said, I believe Messi will be the better of the two, and score or assist more often than the over-hyped Ronaldo.
GR: I'm not doing so great with these predictions, but here goes another: Messi will score, Ronaldo won't.
PU: Messi's more likely to break his duck. In the Clasico in November, Messi did everything but score. Remember those two slide-rule passes for Villa's two goals? Yeah, that seems to be a statement of intent.
SK: It could go either way. I'd go for both Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo to score.
AOS: It’s more likely that Lionel Messi will score than Cristiano Ronaldo. The latter has the tendency to take shots from everywhere, much to the dismay of his teammates. But in order for CR7 to score a long-range effort he needs both, time and space, and the Blaugrana won’t give him neither.
3. Who will be the most important player for either side?
AD: All the hype will surround Messi and Ronaldo, but I think there are two players who will be far more important. Valdes has hit top form recently and no doubt, his shot stopping ability will be tested by Los Merengues. If he can keep them out, Messi, Xavi etc will have a much easier job.
For Real I think Casillas will be vital. Not only will he have to have the games of his career against Barcelona, but also be a calming influence if Barca take control again. In the Manita, Real lost their heads, and a repeat will prove costly especially in the Champions League ties.
PU: Whoever starts beside Pique. It'd probably be unrealistic to expect Barcelona to dominate like they did in November, and Madrid is playing at home, which will be incentive enough to attack. Can Milito or Busquets (or Fontas, hehe) hold up?
SK: I know we've got the best in Lionel Messi but I personally believe that Xavi is the most important and his influence in the game would be massive. For Real it has to be Ronaldo. GR: Pique is the most important player for Barcelona—he needs to be an absolute force in the back, surrounded as he will be by a makeshift defense. He's got to stay out of trouble, too. Things are going to get heated, and players might get sent off. Barcelona can't afford to lose Pique, who's a bit of a hothead. For Real Madrid it's Xabi Alonso. They'll need him to break up Xavi-Messi combos in the middle, and supply their speedsters with long balls over the Barcelona defense.
BC: Andres Iniesta for Barca; he struggled against Almería and as a result Barcelona didn't have their best game. He is usually one of the best players on the pitch and I'm sure he will be on his A-game against Real Madrid.
Xabi Alonso for the Whites; when he is on the pitch Real Madrid win, it's as simple as that. He plays a quiet game, but he organizes everything and he has a killer cross from free kicks from the side.
AOS: Mr. Waka Waka himself, Gerard Pique. If Piquenbauer has one of his notorious lapses in concentration, FC Barcelona’s makeshift defense will be ruthlessly exploited by Real Madrid’s forwards, even Emanuel Adebayor could sniff out a goal or two.
I’m not a big fan of his but Mesut Özil is the Merengues’ main attacking outlet. Every attack goes through the former Werder Bremen player.
Click here for Part II.