FC Barcelona travel to the capital tomorrow as they prepare to take on reigning La Liga champions Real Madrid for the sixth – and almost certainly final – time this season. Unlike recent seasons which have been characterised by Blaugrana dominance in the fixture, Real Madrid and Jose Mourinho appear to have turned the corner and are unbeaten in their last four matches against the Catalan giants. However, with a crucial UEFA Champions League Round of 16, second-leg match against Premier League leaders Manchester United fast approaching, do Los Blancos have the squad depth required to extend that run to five matches with a win/draw at the Santiago Bernabeu tomorrow?
So it’s official. For once Marca actually reported the news, and it turns out that Xavi will miss tomorrow’s Clasico through injury. Whether this confirms my suspicion that Xavi was never fit to return in the first place remains to be seen, but it’s safe to say that Barcelona will miss his presence in midfield. Despite sitting out yesterday’s session with a fever, Lionel Messi returned to training today and unsurprisingly he was named in the 19-man squad that’s set to travel to Madrid. However, there is no place in the squad for Eric Abidal – who is still waiting to make his long-awaited return from a liver transplant – or for Martin Montoya, even though the Catalan performed admirably when the two sides last met in La Liga action.
Therefore, moving onto the players that did make the squad, Victor Valdés is set to return in goal after sitting out Tuesday’s defeat for tactical reasons. Valdés hasn’t had the most memorable of seasons, but I think I speak for everyone concerned when I say that all will be forgiven if Valdés can keep Real Madrid at bay tomorrow afternoon. Even the whole Angel Di Maria debacle. That’s how desperate I am for Barcelona to keep a clean sheet any way.
In defense, Dani Alves will probably start at right-back after a solid performance in Tuesday’s defeat where – for the most part – he kept Cristiano Ronaldo at bay, although Alves is likely to face competition for a starting berth from Adriano. The former Sevilla full-back hasn’t featured since Barcelona’s 2-1 win over Granada, but with five league goals to his name it’s difficult to ever fully rule Adriano out of contention. In the heart of defense, will Carles Puyol continue at centre-half? Barcelona’s legendary captain has come in for some criticism recently, but I’m not fully convinced that Javier Mascherano is a better option. Mascherano isn’t as tall as Puyol, which could cause problems for the Blaugrana at set pieces and while Puyol is criticised for his pace, or lack thereof, Mascherano isn’t exactly renowned for his blistering pace. And Bartra? Well, if he isn’t trusted with a starting berth against the rest of La Liga, what hope does he have of starting tomorrow? Last but not least, Jordi Alba should start at left-back, although again, Adriano may provide competition.
So, what about the midfield? Sergio Busquets is still the best defensive midfielder in world football meaning that we don’t have to worry about pivote, but Xavi’s injury puts Jordi Roura in a bit of a predicament. Does Roura move Andrés Iniesta back into midfield? Many would argue that’s a given – and I agree, Iniesta will start in midfield, but who starts with him? Thiago? Alex Song? Cesc Fàbregas? My money’s on Cesc, but who knows? Maybe Thiago will get the nod for his "youthful enthusiasm"?
Lionel Messi will start in attack. He might be ill, or at least at less than 100%, but he will start – just as Cristiano Ronaldo will start for Real Madrid in spite of their upcoming UCL match with Manchester United. More so than Xavi, Puyol and even Casillas, one could argue that Messi and Ronaldo are now synonymous with the Clasico; can you imagine a Clasico without the two superstars doing battle? Anyway, back to the team news and Culés are likely to get their wish: David Villa is expected to start on the left-wing with Pedro keeping his place on the right.
Real Madrid are expected to make changes tomorrow ahead of their Champions League clash with Manchester United, but Mourinho will be keen to avoid making too many changes – especially as Madrid’s pride is at stake with each and every Clasico. After winning 3-1 at the Camp Nou, Los Blancos would lose virtually all their momentum if they slip up tomorrow – regardless of whether this match is perceived to be important or not. Therefore, while we can expect changes, don’t expect to see Castilla sent out tomorrow. Instead, we could see the likes of Marcelo, Pepe, Michael Essien, Luka Modric, Jose Callejon, Karim Benzema and perhaps even Kaka. Hardly "second-string".
Real Madrid: LWDWWW
FC Barcelona 1-3 Real Madrid – 26th February 2013 – Copa del Rey
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Cesc, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Villa
Real Madrid (4-2-3-1): Lopez; Arbeloa, Pepe, Varane, Marcelo; Khedira, Essien; Callejon, Modric, Ronaldo; Benzema
It’s difficult to ever predict a Barcelona defeat – although I must admit, it has crossed my mind. However, Barça almost always bounce back, and what better place to do so than the Bernabeu? I’m going for a 2-1 away win.