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El Clasico: Five Questions about Real Madrid vs. Barcelona "Behind Enemy Lines"

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We talk with Dennis J. Seese of ManagingMadrid.com ahead of this weekend's Clasico.

David Ramos

Luis Mazariegos: Do Real Madrid fans fear Luis Suarez, or do they think he won't be fit enough to make too much of an impact?

Dennis Seese: I generally always fear Suarez. His singular destruction of England in the World Cup was so artful and devastating. His towering header from Cavani remains in my mind to this day. I will fear him less in the Clasico because no matter how much training and etc. he undertakes I don’t believe he’ll initially possess the sharpness that normally makes him so deadly. This doesn’t even take into account the length of time it’ll take for him to get used to playing with Neymar and Lionel Messi in actual competitive matches. I think Real fans are in general agreement on this, that perhaps the schedule did us a favor. If he had been playing all through the season and not suspended, I’d imagine most Madrid fans would be a lot more fearful of his impact.

LM: Barcelona haven't conceded in league play but did ship 3 goals in one game against PSG, albeit with a different keeper. Is the defense dominant or just not truly tested consistently yet?

DS: I’ve been very impressed with Barcelona’s defensive record and performance so far. But I definitely think there could be some truth in the theory that they haven’t been tested yet, particularly in La Liga. Obviously PSG is a squad loaded with world-class talent that would severely test any backline in Europe and beyond. Marc-Andre ter Stegen didn’t play his best match and Barca were troubled by dead-ball and set-piece situations against PSG, two problems that haven’t yet recurred with any frequency domestically, so it’s hard to read too much into this match one way or another. But if you look closely at Barca’s La Liga opponents thus far—Villarreal is the only side that resides in the top half of the table and perhaps more importantly, they are the only one of Barca’s opponents who even have a positive goal-differential. I definitely would like to see how they perform defensively against some of the top-tier teams in Spain before I would use the word ‘dominant,’ but they have to be respected for what they’ve achieved.

LM: Do Real fans see defensive midfield as a weakness? Can RM play the Clasico with a midfield that is made of two of James Rodriguez, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric? Or does Asier Illarramendi have to play?

DS: This is a great question. The sense I get from our community is not necessarily that defensive midfield is a weakness but rather the concern seems to be more focused on who exactly is our best and most effective midfield combination. Some feel (myself included) that the best three (in a 4-3-3 formation) at this moment are James, Toni Kroos and Illarra. Before I go any further, I just want to say that I love Luka Modric. I think he’s a brilliant player, but his form through September was not quite up to his usual standard. It’s puzzling as to why. Some in the Managing Madrid community agree with this view and many do not. I personally feel that Illarra has played his way into consideration (at the very least) for a place in the starting XI, particularly in this match. But again, how do you sit a player of Modric’s quality? It’s a really tough call, but if I had to guess I’d bet that Carlo Ancelotti will select Modric, James and Kroos, with the German occupying the deep-lying playmaker role. I also think this match against Barcelona will be Madrid’s first true test of the post-Xabi Alonso era. Will the midfield be able to hold its own against Barca without Xabi’s influence and experience?

LM: Does a change in formation for Barcelona, from more of a typical 4-3-3 to a bit more 4-3-1-2, present a bigger challenge?

DS: I think any change in formation, particularly when the 4-3-3 has essentially been Barcelona’s default system and such a huge part of their identity for years now, will present some difficulties due to the talent Barca possess. The chemistry between Neymar and Lionel Messi is worlds beyond what it was last season and that is something Ancelotti will have to contend with regardless of formation. He’s a supremely astute tactician, so I’m sure he has been thinking of how best to combat Luis Enrique’s innovations. It should be a fascinating battle. Real may feel like they could effectively exploit the gaps in a 4-3-1-2 with the dynamic, unpredictable movement of a player like James.

LM: Is Casillas primarily to blame for defensive frailties? Or is the responsibility more or less equally shared?

DS: I feel like it should be equally shared. Iker Casillas has played pretty well through September into October, although you can tell that his confidence is still very fragile. It’s strange seeing such an accomplished, iconic player seem so palpably insecure. He has made some mistakes and I think many in our community feel that this tentativeness in attacking corners contributes a lot to Real’s ongoing vulnerabilities in defending set pieces. Outside of Casillas though, I feel that Sergio Ramos’s form has been wildly erratic for a player of his caliber and experience. Controlled aggression and a willingness to take risks has always been a part of his game, but there have been times where he’s shown poor judgment and made uncharacteristic mistakes, the first half of the Villarreal match comes immediately to mind. I think the absence of Raphael Varane has also affected Real’s overall defensive performance through the first two months of the season. Varane’s poise and control are almost otherworldly for such a young player and it seems to have a knock-on effect within the rest of the backline. His return to fitness has been a big and largely underrated reason for Real’s recent winning streak.