With less than two days to go until kick-off, the excitement for this season’s final La Liga Clasico is building. We’ve got the UEFA Champions League draw out of the way, and while both the Blaugrana and Los Blancos have interesting draws to debate and dissect, that analysis will have to wait for another day. Instead, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid must remain focused on the Clasico, for every hour, every minute, every second of preparation could be crucial in the run-up to this blockbuster encounter.
Lessons must be learned, not only from the fixtures surrounding this one, but from the first meeting this season. On that sunny October afternoon, FC Barcelona started well but faded fast and their many weaknesses were ruthlessly and repeatedly exploited by the European champions. Indeed, from a Madridista perspective, that truly was the performance of champions; the manner in which they reacted to adversity and ultimately dominated a quality opposition was reminiscent in some ways of Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barça side of the late ‘00’s/early ‘10’s.
Of course, the style of football was markedly different, yet in absolute terms, the level of quality on display was comparable. Thankfully, much has changed at both clubs since that night and a repeat performance seems unlikely. Rather, if the form book is to be believed then it is FC Barcelona’s time to shine. While a throwback to the infamous Manita seems equally unlikely, there are some who believe this is an opportunity for Barça to make a statement.
A win would serve as a cruel blow to Real Madrid’s La Liga title hopes and boost our treble hopes quite significantly, yet when all is said and done, this is but one match and in spite of Real’s recent downturn, victory is far from guaranteed.
With so many star names on display, even a single mistake could decide our fate and with that in mind, here are a few areas in which El Clasico could be won, or lost:
Dealing with the drawbacks of Messi, Suarez and Neymar
Every publication, every pundit, every fan; quite simply everyone is pointing to Barcelona’s frontline of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar as a reason to back the Blaugrana on Sunday, and in many ways, they are obviously correct. Lionel Messi is the best player to ever grace the game, and might just be playing his best ever football; Luis Suarez has found his feet after a slow, shaky start to life in Catalunya while Neymar can decide a match in an instant, and has a habit of performing on the grandest stage.
Just as he exhibited in the first match-up between the two teams, Neymar only needs a sniff of goal to find the back of the net and his battle with Dani Carvajal is sure to be one of the game’s most interesting one-on-one battles. Indeed, just as often as Neymar has embarrassed Carvajal with his trickery and eye for goal, Carvajal has also reaped the rewards of playing against the Brazilian.
In the first Clasico of the season at the Santiago Bernabeu for example, Carvajal initially struggled to compete with Neymar’s unique combination of pace and flair. His inability to track the Brazilian’s runs ultimately contributed to the first goal as much as Luis Suarez’ assist and from thereon in, it appeared as though Barça had won a key battle and would go on to take advantage.
Yet, Real recognised their weakness(es), and quickly turned the tables. Their main weakness was transformed into one of their key strengths, and one of the areas in which the match was won.
Carvajal offered natural width to a somewhat narrow Los Blancos attack while his combination play with James Rodriguez created a couple of good chances for the Colombian. Perhaps that is one of the untold keys to this match; Carvajal will not have James in support and while the absence of the Colombian superstar has been mentioned as a factor in the build-up, few have centred in on his understanding with the Spanish full-back.
Instead, it will likely be Gareth Bale who starts on the right-hand side of the Real midfield, and yes, he offers many qualities to their attack, but his inability to track back could prove as vital as Neymar’s; indeed, compared to the Welshman, even Neymar comes off favourably in this respect. While they rarely receive praise from this side, the Madrid fans are absolutely right to whistle and jeer Bale – his selfishness, or pure laziness leaves Carvajal isolated and creates more problems than he solves on the offensive end.
On the opposite flank, Madrid are far more balanced and as such, as far more dangerous. Provided that Lionel Messi starts in his nominal role on the right-hand side, Barça are already short-handed so to speak – hardly the ideal situation when you’re trying to contend with Marcelo and Isco.
We saw first-hand the impact that Isco can have as the hardest-working member of the Los Blancos squad; it was his work ethic alone that created the coup de grâce at the Bernabeu, pouncing on an uncharacteristic mistake from Andrés Iniesta to set a killer counter-attack in motion. Marcelo meanwhile quietly went about his business, and on reflection, proved to be one of the best players on the field over the course of the 90 minutes.
With a burst of pace in reserve, Marcelo consistently had the beating of his compatriot Dani Alves and sent in the low cross that earned the equalising penalty not to mention a few others that could and perhaps should have been buried by the Real attack.
Allowing both Madrid full-backs not only time, but space on the ball enabled Real to maintain a greater control on the match than their play otherwise deserved. On another night, indeed with different selection from Luis Enrique, Barça’s dominance of possession and pressing game would have become apparent and many of the problems witnessed would never have materialised – or at least reared their ugly head quite as often as they did.
Has Luis Enrique learned his lesson?
If so, expect to see Jordi Alba restored to the starting line-up ahead of Jeremy Mathieu, and Ivan Rakitić or Rafinha Alcântara start in place of club captain, Xavi Hernández.
Winning the midfield battle
And therein lies the key to the next battle: the midfield battle. It’s not simply enough for the Barça midfield to be technically superior to Madrid’s anymore – no, they also need to match, or surpass them in respect of their hunger and desire to not only retain, but regain possession and provide support at either end of the field.
In a footballing landscape that is increasingly obsessed with pragmatism and the concept of a holding midfielder, it is not FC Barcelona, but Real Madrid who are bucking the trend. They might have Sami Khedira in their ranks, and they did have Xabi Alonso – but their greatest successes have come since they abandoned the idea of a holding midfielder and transitioned to a more fluid, more demanding three or four man midfield.
Typically, this season has seen Carlo Ancelotti find great success with a midfield trio of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and either Isco or James Rodriguez – and whichever combination he selects, there is not a traditional holding midfielder in sight. There’s not a Claude Makelele, a Sergio Busquets – or even an Andrea Pirlo in sight. With no set midfield anchor this system is far more demanding, but when it works, the rewards are far greater.
For example, Real’s record-breaking winning streak earlier this season – how many matches were decided by the sheer offensive quality of the side, and the creative ability of that midfield? Would some of those victories have been possible with the inclusion of a "Javier Mascherano" type presence in the middle of the field?
However, the physical demands of playing such an adventurous system has been catching up to Los Blancos. With key personnel sidelined through injury, the Madrid midfield has looked increasingly lethargic, which coupled with a lack of movement from their star-studded attack, has seen the flow of goals dry up quite alarmingly. In response, Ancelotti has tinkered with the system and has, at times, introduced Lucas Silva to try and add a little steel, albeit with mixed results.
The return of Luka Modric is supposed to be the magic fix – but make no mistake, the Madrid midfield is vulnerable and without James to provide additional support, this is an area of weakness that the Blaugrana should strive to exploit.
Sergio Busquets’ presence at pivote in that respect could be a blessing, or it could prove to be a hindrance. Certainly, Javier Mascherano is more mobile and far more adept at ending counter-attacks before they have a chance to reach our defense, yet he is far less comfortable in possession and the tempo of Barça’s play drops when he is present in midfield.
Likewise, Mascherano’s inclusion at pivote gives us far more flexibility to switch between our usual 4-3-3 and a more reactive 3-4-3 that could prove useful in possession – and in defending any Madrid counters. It’s a tough decision for Luis Enrique to make, even assuming that Sergio Busquets is anywhere close to 100% -- but there is a possibility that this decision will ultimately prove to be inconsequential, as long as Lucho gets everything else just right with his midfield selection and gameplan.
Xavi Hernández is a living legend, and remains capable of playing in any match – but tactically, he can’t be included on the same side as Dani Alves and Lionel Messi, at least against Real Madrid. To do so would be to virtually cede our right-flank and invite wave after wave of Madrid attack, ably led by Cristiano Ronaldo, Isco and Marcelo. No thanks.
That’s no knock on Xavi by the way – he’s still a better option than Cesc Fàbregas was in the same position. The now Chelsea midfielder looked lost whenever he took to the field in a similar position and as a result, rarely contributed anything. However, there is one man capable of not only playing this role, but thriving in it – and we signed him from Sevilla this past summer.
Of course, I’m talking about Ivan Rakitić, our favourite all-action Croatian midfielder, worth his weight in gold. He started the season playing like some sort of midfield deity; he was omnipresent as we expected, but he was also omnipotent, often dominating the midfield battle alone, while his ability to quickly integrate and seem at home in the complex Barça system proved that Ivan was also omniscient to boot.
There was a dip in that form, prompted perhaps by Luis Enrique as Rakitić’s confidence took a significant hit when he was benched for the first Clasico. In recent weeks however, Rakitić has been back to his very best – and it’s no understatement to single out the Croat as one of our best performers in our most important matches this season.
With the chance to witness him in person against Atletico Madrid, my admiration for Rakitić was taken to the next level: I campaigned for Barça to sign him even before the links materialised this summer – but after seeing him work his magic against the very midfield that thwarted us so consistently last season...well, words escape me.
In both legs against Manchester City, Rakitić was key – in the first-leg I watched from the corner flag as Rakitić toyed with the hosts expensively assembled midfield. Some of the City fans alongside me didn’t know who Rakitić was before the match, but after such an incredible performance, they surely knew his name by the end of the night.
And if anyone was left in any doubt after that cold February evening, Rakitić stepped forward on Wednesday to put City to the sword once again.
His understanding with Dani Alves and Lionel Messi is joyous to watch, and tactically, he is one of the most intelligent and selfless players in the Barça squad. If he isn’t on the edge of the box, helping to break down an opposing defense, there’s a chance he might be further back, covering at full-back during one of Alves’ marauding runs.
That trait, coupled with his infectious enthusiasm and all-round offensive threat make him the quintessential midfielder for this modern Barça system – if we want to win the midfield battle tomorrow, look for Rakitić to spearhead our efforts.
Embracing pragmatism in moderation?
Wait, don’t shoot. As blasphemous as it might be to suggest a switch away from our usual 4-3-3 – in moderation, a more pragmatic approach may work wonders tomorrow. There is no need for a change in personnel, nor is there a requirement to switch to a double-pivote despite what some might suggest. Rather, the only necessary change is to our mindset – we simply need our players to be more willing to track back and do their part defensively.
While an open encounter might favour the Blaugrana and help provide the space that Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi need to thrive, it might also invite unnecessary and dangerous pressure onto our defense – which has improved, but in reality, can any defense in the world truly nullify a three-pronged attack of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo?
Just as our fabled triumvirate is unstoppable, Madrid’s "BBC" trio is similarly unstoppable – all we can hope to do is limit the impact they will have on the match and pray that our attack matches and surpasses that.
And how do we limit the impact that "BBC" will have on the match? Well, we don’t play into their strengths for starters. That means, where possible, keeping things as tight as possible, as often as possible. The fewer counter-attacks that they have, and the less space that they have, the better. Unlike Neymar, Messi and to a lesser extent, Suarez, the likes of Bale, Ronaldo and Benzema simply cannot operate in tight spaces.
While Neymar and Messi can dribble past a player with finesse, it’s all about brute strength, pace and ergo power when you’re contending with Bale and Ronaldo. If you don’t afford them the space to run into, they are pretty much devoid of ideas.
Athletic Bilbao recognised this fact a couple of weeks ago and used it as a blueprint to their eventual 1-0 victory at the Nuevo San Mames. Abandoning their usual high-line and pressing approach, Athletic applied their pressure in moderation, and if they couldn’t retrieve the ball nigh-on immediately, they retreated back, set themselves up in two banks of four, and watched Madrid struggle.
The mighty Los Blancos could barely muster a single chance – there was no movement from their fabled front three and as a result, the midfield rarely had any other option other than to pass the ball sideways, or lump it into the box. Either way, the ball would likely end up being desperately lumped towards a striker and Athletic were scarcely threatened.
At times, we have seen a similar approach from the Blaugrana. The four-man backline is back in position and while the front three get a pass, the midfield three are also back and rarely more than ten yards in front of the defense. We’re inviting pressure in a sense but we are equally in control, even without the ball – and when the opposition attack inevitably breaks down, we are in perfect position to capitalise with a counter-attack of our own.
Part of Luis Enrique’s charm as Barcelona manager, and the reason why he has succeeded where Tata Martino failed has been his ability to adopt and implement a level of pragmatism to this Barça outfit. Will we see more evidence of this tomorrow, or will Real Madrid bring the Blaugrana back down to earth with a thump by securing a victory at the Camp Nou?
There’s not long to wait for the answer now...