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While the team news will not become official until roughly an hour before kick-off, there has been increasing speculation surrounding the selection of each manager prior to tonight’s match. For FC Barcelona and Tito Vilanova, those rumours surround the usual suspects – will Gerard Piqué be fit to start or will Alex Song be starting at centre-half? Will Andrés Iniesta feature from the start, or will he have to settle for a place on the bench? Everyone has an opinion; let’s round up the thoughts of the community, and of the world’s media ahead of El Clasico.
Where to start? There are so many questions, and as time goes by, we appear to be getting more and more answers. Victor Valdés will start in goal and thanks to the uncertainty surrounding the defense, no-one has quite found the time to bring up his recent Clasico errors. While one could argue that they are completely irrelevant for tonight’s match, they may well have an impact on the Catalan. Just how confident will he be with the ball at his feet, and will that be accentuated by the makeshift backline ahead of him? Real Madrid are likely to pressure the Barca backline whenever they get the chance, and as a result, we may see Valdés receive the ball more often than usual. Will Alex Song know where to position himself so as to give Valdés an option?
Then we move onto the defense. Dani Alves should start at right-back, while Javier Mascherano will start at centre-back, but what about the other two positions? Luis covered the issue in the inaugural Barca Blaugranes podcast, and he made a very good point: "we will not get a better opportunity to put Real Madrid behind than this". While a win tonight will not mathematically secure the league title, many have conceded that an eleven point lead – even at such an early stage – is virtually irrecoverable. If Piqué plays, Barcelona are probably more likely to win, and that means it could be a risk worth taking.
We asked you the same question on Thursday, and the response from the community was clear – Piqué should start the Clasico. Voting was fairly close, but two of every three respondents thought that Piqué should start – although reports emanating from Spain disclose that Piqué is set to miss out entirely. So much for that bright idea.
Official: Pique is not part of Barcelona's squad for the game against Real Madrid today #fcblive #elclasico— barcastuff (@barcastuff) October 7, 2012
Then, yesterday, we asked you who you think should start at left-back: Jordi Alba or Adriano? Both have been playing excellently as of late, although the voting was anything but close. Jordi Alba romped home with 85% of the votes, and I agree with the community: Alba would be the better choice.
Sergio Busquets will start at pivote, with Xavi another guaranteed starter in the midfield, but who will join them? Cesc Fàbregas or Andrés Iniesta? We asked you the same question on Friday, and once again, the answer was clear – you want to see Andrés Iniesta in midfield alongside Xavi Hernández. The next most popular answer was to start both, presumably with Iniesta on the left-wing, but as Bostjan noted in his comment on the article, space will be at a premium tonight, and Iniesta’s incredible dribbling ability could prove to be a "very useful asset". Does that mean Cesc Fàbregas will have to settle for a place on the bench? According to Sport, it will be quite the opposite, as they back Cesc to start ahead of Iniesta. No matter who starts, (I think we will see both for what it’s worth) one thing is for certain: Barcelona’s midfield is their strongest position.
Moving onto the attack, a lot depends on whether or not we see Andrés Iniesta deployed in attack. It was a tactic Pep Guardiola used extensively last season, partly due to injuries, but also due to Iniesta’s lack of fitness. While he slowly got back to 100% match fitness, Guardiola used him out wide where Iniesta could run a little less and help the Blaugrana dominate possession. If Alex Song is at the back, I think the whole "Iniesta in attack" idea looks a whole lot more attractive.
Lionel Messi will start in attack, and for all the debate over his positioning, it’s far more likely that the Argentine will drop into midfield to allow Iniesta, Fàbregas and even Xavi the space to attack. It worked brilliantly in the first-leg of the Supercopa, and may work again tonight, although that doesn’t mean we won’t see Messi high up the field. Completing the line-up, Tito will have to choose between Alexis Sanchez and Pedro. With little to separate the pair, it may well come down to Pedro’s reputation as a "big-game player", something else Luis stated in the podcast.
Likely Line-up (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Song, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Cesc; Pedro, Messi, Iniesta
The fact of the matter is, whether you like them or loathe them, Real Madrid are a very effective side. Operating out of the modern manager’s favourite – the 4-2-3-1 – Real are extremely well-balanced, and despite claims to the contrary, are an adventurous side. The Trivote appears to have been consigned to the record books and in recent Clasicos Mourinho has allowed his side to go toe-to-toe with the Blaugrana. However, therein lies the problem – it was Mourinho abandoning his principles that led to the infamous Manita back in November 2010 and while Los Blancos are winning with a little more regularity, those wins are still few and far between. A win in the Copa del Rey final back in 2010, last season’s win at the Camp Nou and this season’s victory in the Spanish Supercopa – it’s almost as though Real are limited to one Clasico victory per season.
Clásico: got the impression Piqué wont start, and Madrid will play with Coentrao and Essien (no Ozil,Kaka orModric).Just an educated guess— Guillem Balague (@GuillemBalague) October 7, 2012
Just how can Jose Mourinho surprise us tomorrow night? He’s used the Trivote before; he’s put Pepe in midfield before. Ramos has played right-back; Ramos has played centre-back. Higuain has played in attack, Benzema has played in attack – absolutely nothing he can do will surprise us. He will set out as he usually does, in a 4-2-3-1 (possibly in a 4-3-3 trivote, depending on how "scared" he is – not of Barcelona, but of "losing" the league title) with the usual suspects competing for each position. Fabio Coentrao or Marcelo? Gonzalo Higuain or Karim Benzema? Even then, Barcelona know what to expect from each of those players – leading me to believe that Jose only has one trump card left – Luka Modric.
Starting out with the defense, Madrid arguably have the best centre-back pairing in all of world football. Sure, Sergio Ramos isn’t on the best of terms with Jose Mourinho; but above all else, Jose is a professional: he knows just how important Ramos is to his defense. It was clear last season; Madrid started slowly, but things turned around after Jornada Seven, when Ramos moved to centre-half to partner Pepe. Both are fast, both are powerful, but both are also susceptible to errors – be it defensive errors (such as positioning) or errors of judgement (losing their tempers etc).
Each full-back likes to get forward to support the attack, particularly Marcelo if he plays on the left-hand side, although in doing so, they leave gaps at the back – and that’s where the pace of Pepe and Ramos comes into play. They can cover for their teammates, but in doing so, they also leave gaps. Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso complement each other well in midfield, but it is possible that Michael Essien could get the nod ahead of the German. If that’s the case, then Barcelona will have cause for celebration – Essien is not the same player he once was, and (in my opinion) is no-where near as difficult to contend with as Khedira is. Renowned Spanish journalist Guillem Balague tweeted that he has a hunch Essien will start, although it was only his personal opinion, and he seemed to think it would be in place of Mesut Ozil or Luka Modric (Trivote alert?).
However, the real problems are posed by the attack – a strike-force that combined to score over 100 goals last season. Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria start on either flank, cutting in to great effect, with Mesut Ozil the usual choice at #10. However, neither Ozil nor Modric started on Wednesday – could this mean that the Croatian is in line for a start? Ozil is the better option (in my opinion anyway), but Modric would be the "safer" option, capable of dropping deeper to join the double-pivote if required. Maybe both will get the nod? Would that mean Luka alongside Xabi Alonso or Ozil on the wing perhaps? It’s hard to tell, but it’s something Tito Vilanova will have to think about. Jose Callejon could start like he did in the Supercopa, but that appears unlikely at the very least.
Then, in attack, who will start? Gonzalo Higuain or Karim Benzema? The Frenchman is in better form, but the Argentine has been in favour with Mourinho recently, and at his best, Higuain is arguably the more clinical finisher. On the other hand, Benzema is quicker, more powerful and combines well with Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s a difficult choice, but one that doesn’t really have a "right" or "wrong" answer.
Likely Line-up (4-2-3-1): Casillas; Arbeloa, Ramos, Pepe, Coentrao; Khedira, Alonso; Di Maria, Ozil, Ronaldo; Benzema
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