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El Clasico, Real Madrid vs. FC Barcelona: Tactics Preview

It's time for El Clasico! Will Tata Martino, like a pistachio-colored Yoda, pull out the Jedi mind tricks? Or will the old fox Carlo Ancelotti get his revenge?

Martino: Mastermind Another Big Win

When Gerardo Martino took over the reigns as FC Barcelona head coach, the main criticism about him was his lack of European experience. Even Carlo Ancelotti chimed in, accusing Martino of "not understanding how European football works."

Martino's team may be behind in the league, but so far, he's gotten the best of his counterparts with more European seasons under their belt. He certainly got the better of Ancelotti in their first meeting, as Barcelona soared to a fairly comfortable 2-1 win. And he got Manuel Pellegrini uncharacteristically foaming at the mouth as Barca stuffed Manchester City not once, but twice.

For Martino, the mission is simple: do it again.

Ironically, it is Ancelotti who will be happy to have more experience this time 'round. It's Ancelotti who has to learn from his previous mistakes. That means it's Martino who will be looking to put the young grasshopper back in his place.

The key decision for Martino is whether to start with four or five natural midfielders (five or six if you count Javier Mascherano in defense.)

It's almost a given that Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets start. The question is, will Cesc Fabregas start as well? And if so, who will be the other forward besides Lionel Messi - Neymar, Alexis Sanchez, or Pedro?

In the previous meeting, Tata went with Cesc as the center-forward, with Neymar and Messi flanking him. Considering Neymar's recent dip in form, will that persist?

Or will Alexis, who is having a sterling 2014, be given the chance to replicate his Clasico heroics from the start of the match? Or will it be La Masia's own Pedro, who has a knack for key goals against Madrid?

Ancelotti: Don't Repeat the Same Mistakes

In the first meeting between the two coaches, Carlo Ancelotti tried his best to put Tata Martino off-guard by trying bold new approaches.

He stuck Sergio Ramos in midfield, while going with Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, and Angel Di Maria as his front three strikers.

Ramos in midfield was a failure. It's intention may have been to clog the middle and make life difficult for Lionel Messi. But with Messi taking a spot on the right wing, and an in-form Neymar on the left, it was a bit of a waste. Ancelotti has called it a mistake and he's sure not to repeat it.

>Meanwhile, Bale, Ronaldo, and Di Maria were ineffective despite the oft-criticized Barcelona defense. With Jese out with a long-term injury and Karim Benzema recovering from a minor injury, it's not inconceivable that this front three would be repeated. It's doubtful Ancelotti trusts Alvaro Morata enough to start him in a game such as this.

More likely though, is that Benzema will start, flanked by Bale and Ronaldo. Benzema was back in training and it's no doubt he will race to make sure he's as close to 100% as possible.

When Ancelotti stopped trying to be too clever and went back to basics - Asier Illarramendi in midfield and Benzema upfront - Real Madrid functioned a lot better. It's hard to think Ancelotti would repeat that mistake. Crucially, Xabi Alonso is back from injury and could start in midfield. Surely one of the reasons for the Ramos experiment was Xabi's absence.

The Contest

With Barcelona needing to win more than Real Madrid need it, Martino's patience will be tried if he plays extra midfielders. It will be Barcelona who hold the possession and who will be proactive.

Ancelotti has shifted Madrid to emulate Barcelona to an extent - they play 4-3-3 now, emphasize possession a little more, and they're even capable of playing with a false nine.

Against the masters of the style, it wouldn't be surprising to see Madrid revert to more familiar ways. Certainly, if they can spring Ronaldo or Bale in a counter, we've seen Barcelona's defense crumble before.

In the first meeting, Ancelotti moved his bench effectively and stemmed the tide from getting his initial tactics wrong. In the latest Madrid derby, Ancelotti was again on-target making substitutions. Straight swaps for both fullbacks when you're a goal down is hardly a textbook strategy, but it proved to be the correct strategy as having more attacking players on the flanks spurred Real to get an equalizer.

Martino reacted well to Ancelotti's substitutions - it's good to keep in mind that a substitute scored Barca's second goal - but he'll need to stay on his A game again. Anything but a win would deal a serious blow to Barcelona's title chances. A defeat would be all but a catastrophe.

Madrid are in better shape than in the previous meeting and they're playing at home, but Barcelona have a (near?) fully fit Messi and the chance to save their season.

It will be another intense round of speed chess.

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