FC Barcelona travel to the Spanish capital tomorrow, where they will look to pick up where they left off before the international break: by consolidating their lead at the top of La Liga against eternal rivals, Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu.
In spite of a somewhat shaky and inconsistent start to the campaign, the Blaugrana have found their feet in the recent weeks and months, overcoming the temporary loss of their star player, Lionel Messi, to enter this match with a healthy three point cushion over Los Blancos. Of course, a win would see that gap at the top extended to six points before the turn of the year; but as always, this Clasico promises to be a tense, close-fought encounter and the three points are far from guaranteed.
In fact, Rafa Benitez’ hosts enter the match as slight favourites according to the bookmakers, no doubt influenced by their home advantage and the uncertainty surrounding the fitness of both Leo Messi and Ivan Rakitic. Even without their talismanic leader, Cristiano Ronaldo, firing on all cylinders, Los Merengues have looked strong in the first-half of this season and their record at the Bernabeu makes for intimidating reading.
Across all competitions, seven teams have visited Real Madrid thus far this season; all but one of them (Malaga CF) have left empty-handed and only one of the teams (UD Las Palmas) have even scored in front of the Madridista crowd. Sure, a lot of the teams are quite weak, but bear in mind that this list includes Shakhtar Donetsk and Paris Saint-Germain, neither of whom could beat Keylor Navas, let alone the rest of Benitez’ team.
The good news? FC Barcelona are better than all those other clubs, so we shouldn’t be too concerned about what PSG and others have, or haven’t done at the Bernabeu. The bad news? Regardless of that, Real Madrid will have confidence because of those results and as we’ve seen over the past few seasons, a confident Real Madrid is a dangerous Real Madrid.
Consider too, how much damage a confident and dangerous Madrid side could do to a notoriously slow-starting Barcelona. If only there was one player who could return and maybe make this all better…
Will he? Won’t he? Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past two weeks, you might have noticed that the majority of the column inches in the build-up to this Clasico have been reserved for the fate of one man, and whether he could recover in time to lead his side out, figuratively speaking, at the Bernabeu. No, not Douglas; of course everyone has been talking about Lionel Messi. For a while, it seemed as though the media were intent on ruling him out of contention entirely. Then, in a swift recant, most outlets starting singing from the other hymn sheet: Messi will feature, and might even start.
Really, it’s all a little silly, because he’s Lionel Messi and we know damn well that unless there’s a risk of a relapse, he’s going to start this game. I mean no offense to Munir or anything, but a hobbled Messi operating at 60% is still better than any alternatives we can currently muster. Think about it logically; with Neymar in the form of his life, and Suarez averaging a goal a game, we don’t need the Messi that takes the game by the throat and dribbles past defenders with blistering speed; I’ll happily settle for Messi to sit back and play orchestrator.
*Rewinds tape back to 29th November 2010, plays Messi’s assists on a continuous loop*
More on that later though; for now it’s time to get the rest of the line-up. I could try and frame this in some grand fashion, or I could try to pose a few interesting selection dilemmas, but what’s the point? We know who is going to start, barring any last-minute relapses, fresh injuries or illness.
Claudio Bravo will be the man between the sticks, and you better believe the Chilean would love to record his first Clasico clean sheet. To support him in that quest, he’ll have Dani Alves, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba for support; all three are certain shoe-ins – the only question is who will join them at the back. Logic dictates that it will be Javier Mascherano; the former Argentina captain is a big-game player, a defensive leader and Pique’s usual central defensive partner but Jeremy Mathieu did score a crucial goal in this fixture last season.
The Frenchman’s height, strength and natural left-footedness could see him get the nod ahead of El Jefecito, but I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were him; rather I’d expect him to come off the bench to replace Ivan Rakitic around the hour-mark tomorrow, if things are going to plan that is. I suppose I should mention Thomas Vermaelen, but I don’t like that he made the squad ahead of Marc Bartra so I refuse to entertain the idea that the injury-prone Belgian could actually start the match.
In midfield, Ivan Rakitic has received medical clearance to return to the squad, which coupled with Lucho’s pre-match press conferences hints at a return for our classic three-man midfield. Sergio Busquets at pivote (doing the Lord’s work, one might add) with Rakitic and Andres Iniesta just ahead is yet another triumvirate that will give Benitez a sleepless night tonight.
And on that note, let me digress for just one moment as we consider this in a little more detail. No, not just the idea of Iniesta, Busquets and Rakitic in midfield; rather the fact that Barcelona will travel to the Santiago Bernabeu tomorrow, and their selection remains the same as ever. On the other hand, Real Madrid, as the hosts and "favourites" are actively considering a switch from the norm to combat the Blaugrana. That switch – the potential introduction of Casemiro – says a lot about tomorrow’s match.
First, it reaffirms the general consensus that Barcelona have the world’s greatest midfield, even with the departure of Xavi. Secondly, it suggests that Real Madrid by default aren’t balanced; that their usual line-up, while impressive and vastly superior to the rest of La Liga, isn’t built to actually function or thrive in the biggest matches. And thirdly, it hints that Barcelona have the upper-hand. Not just in quality, but also in experience; they will play the same way as ever whereas Madrid might need to adapt to something out of the ordinary – how can they possibly operate with as much fluidity and chemistry as normal in such circumstances?
Just my observation, even if it is through a pair of heavily Blaugrana tinted glasses.
Anyway, back to my original train of thought… allow me a moment to just pause and savour the next sentence…
Lionel Messi is back.
It feels good to write, and it feels good to read. It’s going to be a damn fine sight to behold tomorrow as well. But wait, there’s more: he’ll be joined by Luis Suarez. You might remember him as the scorer of the winning goal in our solitary Clasico win last year, or you might remember him as the guy who was averaging a goal a game in Messi’s absence. Oh, and then there’s this small little Brazilian chap called Neymar. He’s quite good as well.
And by quite good, I mean the second-best player currently active in the sport.
If Neymar was playing this well in any year prior to 2008, we would be worshipping him as the finest footballer on the planet; alas, we are fortunate enough to exist in the same generation as Lionel Messi and so Neymar has to settle for second best. Not that it matters one iota to him. He’s just happy to be helping the team, even if that’s something of an understatement.
The idea of all three combining tomorrow, complemented by a midfield of Busquets, Rakitic and Iniesta… oh man, I’ve got chills. Who’s gonna sacrifice their body for that one?
Apparently, it’s these guys. Say what you want, but you to admire their gumption; taking on Barcelona is never easy, let alone when they’re welcoming back the greatest footballer the world has and will ever see. Or when they’re holding a lead at the top of the table. Basically, the stars all appear to be aligning to form a giant Barcelona crest, and poor Rafa Benitez has to dream up a way to upset the odds.
Or live up to them, I’ m really losing track at the moment.
Whatever the case, this promises to be one of the toughest, most important nights of Benitez’ managerial career. Carlo Ancelotti is one of the finest managers of our generation, but he wasn’t good enough for Real Madrid. Ditto Jose Mourinho. No-one has been good enough up against Barcelona, and somehow Benitez has to buck the trend. Perhaps unfairly, the Spaniard has got a reputation for being something of a fraud.
Did anyone see his stints at Internazionale, or Chelsea?
If you didn’t, you weren’t missing much. Well, apart from the dismantling of two great teams, one of whom is yet to recover. Benitez has thrived as an underdog. With Valencia, with Liverpool, his pedigree was excellent; and that’s the guy that Perez wanted to hire. Is he the same man? Time will tell, with the clearest sign yet expected to come roughly 18 hours from the time of publish.
He has all the tools one would expect to need for such a job. Barcelona have a phenomenal squad, no doubt, but Real Madrid is arguably as good, if not better. I mean, they could genuinely start with Toni Kroos, Mateo Kovacic and Isco on the bench and still field an exceptional team capable of going toe-to-toe with the reigning holders of pretty much every competition in Spain and Europe. How will they line-up you ask?
Well, Keylor Navas should be back in time to start in goal despite recent rumours suggesting he was a doubt. Danilo is expected to fight off competition from Dani Carvajal for the starting right-back berth, although at a stretch he could arguably fill in for Marcelo, if his compatriot isn’t yet at 100% following his recent injury. Not that his record against the Blaugrana is that good; remember the Club World Cup final for Santos?
In the centre of defense, Benitez is praying that Sergio Ramos will be fit enough to return to the line-up, particularly given how his side crumbled without him against Sevilla. That being said, I refuse to categorise a starting partnership of Raphael Varane and Pepe as "weak", or "susceptible" or just about any other adjective with negative connotations.
I mentioned it earlier, but to recap: Benitez might start Casemiro. That might sound ludicrous when on paper, every single alternative option is better. Luka Modric. Isco. Toni Kroos. Mateo Kovacic. James Rodriguez. Given a truly free choice, Casemiro would the last selection from that group but needs must, and Benitez is thinking (perhaps correctly) that a midfield lining up against Barcelona needs some sort of defensive presence.
Well, as logical and smart as it sounds both Madridistas and Real players alike are supposedly baying for blood, demanding that Rafa goes all-out attack on our asses.
Your funeral I guess.
I suppose I’m mandated to talk about Cristiano Ronaldo so here goes nothing: he usually sucks in Bernabeu Clasicos. I was there last year, so I know how badly we got beaten, but it wasn’t really down to Ronaldo, whose only meaningful contribution was converting that penalty and doing that annoyingly narcissistic celebration of his. All the plaudits were reserved for Isco, Karim Benzema and James Rodriguez – and rightfully so.
This season has been like an extended version of that game; James Rodriguez has been utterly incredible when Benitez has actually used him, while Benzema, for his off-field troubles, has also been excellent. If I were Benitez, and I was tasked with trying to beat Barcelona tomorrow, of course I would still start Ronaldo; but I would place all my chips on James, Benzema and Isco doing the damage.
But I’m not, and Florentino Perez is still around so I guess Benitez will have to reluctantly hope that Gareth Bale can actually do something relevant again – and without Bartra in the squad… well, his chances of doing just that might have dissipated.
Sidenote: between them, the fabled trio of Benzema, Bale and Ronaldo have broken the deadlock in five of Real’s La Liga matches. Neymar has scored the first goal in five of Barcelona’s La Liga fixtures. Suarez has done it in three. One to consider maybe for all you compulsive gamblers out there.
Real Madrid: WDWWWL
FC Barcelona 2-1 Real Madrid – 22nd March 2015 – La Liga
Goals from two summer signings, Luis Suarez and… Jeremy Mathieu (!) helped the Blaugrana avenge their defeat at the Bernabeu, not to mention consolidate their lead at the top of the table.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Real Madrid (4-2-3-1): Navas; Danilo, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo; Kroos, Modric; James, Bale, Ronaldo; Benzema
If Ancelotti were still in charge, I would be typing out a prediction in favour of Madrid. However, they’ve got Rafa so I’m going for a 3-1 Barca win. Go bold, or go home.