Once again, we've come to match that the world will be watching: El Clásico.
Real Madrid: the threat?
FC Barcelona: the execution and/or executioner?
For all neutral fans, let me make things clear for all of you: no true FC Barcelona or Real Madrid fan looks forward to El Clásico. No true Culé or Madridista says, "I'm so excited for El Clásico!" Any so-called Barça or Madrid fan that says that is a fraud.
El Clásico is not something a true fan looks forward to. It's an emotional roller coaster that takes a toll on one's emotions and that no other match in European football can equal. You can look forward to the match starting, just so it can be over with, but you certainly aren't "excited to enjoy" the match.
All this being said, let's talk about this match.
For Real Madrid, it's obviously more of a must-win. Madrid would fall six points behind Barcelona with a loss. While a draw would suffice to some fans, most fans feel it's a win or "nada más."
All Madrid eyes will be on Cristiano Ronaldo. This season, Ronaldo has been criticized more than ever and there are multiple reports stating CR7's time in Madrid may be coming to an end. While Ronaldo isn't the player he once was, let's not act like he's washed up already or that he can't pick up a hat trick at any moment.
As a Barça journalist and fan, of course I don't want to see Cristiano suddenly awaken and score two goals in El Clásico. Once again, Dani Alves will have to try and restrain himself from running up too much on offense, or else he'll free
up a Ronaldo-led counterattack. Of course, Javier Mascherano (if he starts a CB) and Gerard Pique will have their work cut out for them, as always. For me, I'm a bit more concerned about James Rodriguez than Cristiano. The Colombian is capable of causing major damage to the Barça back line and midfield. It'll most likely be up to Sergio Busquets to help mark James whenever Madrid is on offense.
Speaking about Gerard, let me say that one thing that will be interesting to hear is the Madrid faithful whistling and booing Pique. We know Gerard doesn't care, but it'll still be an experience. Madrid fans have taken their hate of Pique to another level, and there's no point to try to defuse it or make them understand how a rivalry works.
Luis Suarez said a few days ago that he wouldn't go after Sergio Ramos' injured shoulder during El Clásico. While I do respect Luis' for saying that, let's state the obvious and say that Suarez was never truly going to go after Ramos's shoulder.
(For those still caught up in Suarez's past antics: insert a bite joke here)
What Luis Suarez should do is try and make Sergio Ramos feel that shoulder injury throughout the match, when in attack, by making Ramos physically work harder. Make Ramos have to turn and shift quickly during Barça attacks, out-hustle him on plays, force Sergio to use up as much energy as possible. As the match goes on and he begins to tire, Sergio Ramos will feel his injury even more. There's only so much a shot/injection will do to help numb the pain and discomfort. Even if Ramos doesn't feel pain, only more discomfort, that is still an advantage for Luis Suarez and FC Barcelona.
The most important man on the pitch on for Barcelona on Saturday will be Neymar, regardless if Lionel Messi plays or not. The Brazilian has validated himself as the second-best player in the world since Leo's injury. Thanks to his leadership on the pitch as well as goals, Ney is peaking at the right time. For El Clásico, I expect to see Neymar not change a thing and lead the team's offense. Even if Leo starts the match, I still see Neymar beginning the plays on offense and setting up his teammates.
Yes, Leo is still the man at FCB, but even Leo would let Neymar begin the plays. Eventually, Messi will take over as the playmaker either in this match or whenever he's fit, but for now, it's been solid with Neymar as the leader and for me, that's how it should be for this Clásico. It can't go all back to Messi so fast. It's not that Leo can't handle it; it's just that it'd be best to go with what's hot right now and ease Messi back into the Barça machine.
Some have asked me whether I'd start Leo Messi or not for El Clásico. He's been training with the team and all appears well.
This being said, I'd still play it safe and keep Leo on the bench. For me, Real Madrid's loss to Sevilla changed my strategy for El Clásico. If both Madrid and Barça came into this match tied atop the La Liga standings, then I'd go with Leo in my starting XI because I want to go guns blazing. But with Madrid losing and Barça with a three-point cushion, there's room to see if this Messi-less team that has won matches with Neymar and Suarez can do it again. If Barcelona goes down early, then yes, it's time to bring in Leo. But if Barcelona goes into the second half of the match with a draw or leading, then bring in Leo around the 60th minute.
I'm still concerned about Leo's health. As we saw in the 2012-13 season, it's vital to make sure Leo is truly 100% healthy, despite his requests to get back on the pitch as soon as possible. A Clásico win would be useless if Leo suffers a relapse. I don't know if Leo's legs are already ready for 90 minutes of work... and a Clásico at that. Last season, we saw that Luis Suarez wasn't ready for a Clásico, despite spending months training with the team and not coming back from an injury. While I do think Messi is ready for match play, I'm just not sure if he's ready for 90 minutes— only he knows that. Luis Enrique has a tough decision to make. If Leo plays, he starts at RW. If Leo sits, then it may be an Andres Iniesta, Suarez, Neymar front line with Sergi Roberto, Busquets and Ivan Rakitic at midfield. Regardless of what Lucho decides, I will trust his decision.
I'm not going to make a score line prediction. Why? Because anything can happen in a Clásico. Even if Barcelona was in first place and Madrid was in the relegation zone, I would still not make a score line prediction. All I want is that Barcelona come away from El Bernabeu with a six-point lead in the Liga table. I hope this happens, but as mentioned, anything is possible.
El Clásico happens, at minimum, twice a year.
Clásicos are a football chess match. It's time to watch the match and see whose threat is simply just that, and whose execution is on the mark.
My friends at TYT Sports have an excellent tactical breakdown of El Clásico that you must watch. Francis Maxwell breaks down how Neymar and Luis Suarez can expose Danilo and the Madrid defense, as well as how Messi can once again hurt Los Blancos. Francis also talks Madrid and how they can hurt FCB. Watch the tactical breakdown of El Clásico right now: