Are you ready? We are less than 24 hours away from the biggest match of FC Barcelona’s season: El Clasico, as the table-topping Blaugrana prepares to welcome their eternal rivals Real Madrid to the Camp Nou to defend their La Liga lead. Having only regained control of La Liga just a couple of weeks ago, Barça will be keen to stand their ground and even extend their cushion over Los Blancos with a victory, a crucial win that may be worth even more than three points in terms of the head-to-head record between the two sides, depending on the final result of course.
The form guide suggests that Barcelona should be considered slight favourites, although similar was said prior to the first Clasico of the season at the Santiago Bernabeu. At least, Barça too entered that match as league leaders, only to be dominated en route to a humbling 1-3 defeat – and that’s after we went ahead on the night courtesy of a goal from Neymar. Confidence is a good thing; over-confidence could however prove to be our downfall.
And it’s in treading that thin, unknown line that champions are born; how often have we seen premature declarations of greatness foiled – certainly more often than not with this fixture. Jose Mourinho was brought in by Real Madrid for instance with the explicit reasoning being that he could end Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, only for Barça to romp to a UEFA Champions League and La Liga double at Real’s expense.
Likewise, it wouldn’t be a stretch to claim that Luis Suarez was signed by the Blaugrana as a direct response to Real Madrid’s UEFA Champions League winning trio of Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. The Uruguayan could yet come good, but in terms of an immediate effect, Suarez’ inclusion in the first Clasico did little to overshadow Real’s star players.
The old adage: "he who laughs last, laughs best" may be more relevant than ever tomorrow. Whether it’s Suarez coming good on the grandest stage of all, or whether it’s Real Madrid ending their recent run of poor form, this old saying is sure to be applicable in some way.
Nothing but good news this week from the Blaugrana camp; there are no new suspensions to deal with thanks to some astute management last weekend against SD Eibar from Luis Enrique. Javier Mascherano didn’t take to the field with four yellow cards and the threat of a one-game ban hanging over his head, a ban that could have proven disastrous given Barcelona’s sudden lack of depth at pivote.
Thankfully, that "crisis" is over as Sergio Busquets made his triumphant return to training with one eye on making his comeback tomorrow in El Clasico. It’s a long-shot – not because of his ability, of course Barça are much the better side with Busquets in the line-up, but because most of the coaching and medical staff are opposed to risking a relapse, as is possible with ankle injuries like the one that Sergio suffered against Villarreal. Likewise, will he be back at 100%, and if not, can we "risk" him in a match of this magnitude?
Ultimately, it will be Luis Enrique’s decision and expect the Barça coach to keep his cards close to his chest right up until kick-off tomorrow evening.
I mean, who’s to say that Lucho won’t spring a surprise or two tomorrow, just as he did at the Santiago Bernabeu by starting Jeremy Mathieu at left-back. Sure, it didn’t work out, but there often is a fine line between genius and madness. Let’s see if he can find himself on the right side of that line at the end of the weekend.
The majority of his team for tomorrow will pick itself – and that’s good news, as it allows Enrique to spend more time focusing on his gameplan than on such trivial matters as his selection.
Claudio Bravo will start in goal and while he boasts a quite simply terrible record against Real Madrid, there’s no reason to believe that that will continue tomorrow. Sure, there’s a chance that he might concede another three goals, but even then, would you count Barça out from winning? Rather, I look forward to seeing Claudio Bravo back between the sticks tomorrow. Marc-André ter Stegen was good against Manchester City, but it’s clear that he still has a lot to learn.
Attempting to dribble round Argentine attackers never works out well for Barcelona goalkeepers (right Victor Valdés?), and the idea that ter Stegen shouldn’t feel as though he has to change purely because City didn’t score is foolish and naive. Alas, Bravo will not engage in such activities – rather he elects for a more traditional approach and while that may not win as many plaudits as the goalkeeper audaciously dribbling round an outfield player, it is exactly what a goalkeeper is supposed to do.
In terms of shot-stopping, Bravo ranks amongst the very best not only in La Liga, but in world football. The accuracy of passing and his decision-making when distributing the ball is uncanny and unparalleled while I think his leadership skills at Barcelona are thoroughly underrated. This is a keeper who used to captain one of the best sides in Spain, and a team that have quite simply crashed down the table since his departure. Coincidence? I think not.
But as always, it isn’t just down to Claudio Bravo and if Barcelona have their way, it will never be down to the Chilean – instead, all the Real Madrid attacks will be thwarted by our defense! Well, we can dream, right?
At right-back, Dani Alves might just be preparing to start his final Clasico if rumours about his departure are to be believed, yet the very fact that he is starting in this match should indicate to the club that we need to secure his future – and fast. If we had a better alternative, they would be starting after all – but no, Alves remains our best bet and should be given exactly what he wants, especially with the transfer ban in effect and Danilo heading to the Spanish capital.
Against Manchester City, Alves was in impeccable form, reminding the Culéverse just why we loved him – and why some continue to adore him. Offensively, he was a tour de force, and defensively, he allowed very few chances against a free-flowing City attack; far from being the "liability" that some Culés maliciously label him to be.
Over the years, we’ve seen some memorable Clasico performances from Alves; whether it was his uber-golazo in the Copa del Rey, or the time he shut-down Cristiano Ronaldo with an imperious defensive showing, Alves often saved his best for these matches. How about one more time, for old time sake, eh Dani?
In the heart of defense, Gerard Piqué will look to continue his rich vein of form, and perhaps even add another goal to his career-best tally. After so long our set piece form was the punchline in many jokes – "Barça can’t defend balls into the box", "Barça never score from corners" – well, how about now? We rarely give up set piece goals and our corners have been one of our primary weapons, at least in comparison to seasons gone by.
The idea for instance that Piqué has only managed one less La Liga goal than Pedro this season is quite simply scary and lest we forget, Real Madrid’s set piece defense is one of its weaknesses. Would you bet against Piqué getting himself on the scoresheet if we grab a few corners on Sunday? I certainly wouldn’t be surprised.
The only question is: who will partner Geri tomorrow evening?
Jeremy Mathieu will be fancying his chances at a second successive El Clasico start, and must be anxious to show us what he can provide against Madrid when played in his favoured central position. As long as we don’t see a repeat of the whole left-back debacle at the Bernabeu, that’ll suit me just fine. However, I can’t say I’m backing Mathieu to start – rather, I would prefer to see either Javier Mascherano in the backline with Sergio Busquets restored at pivote, or Marc Bartra given another Clasico start.
In some respects, the last one went well. In another, it ended up with Bartra becoming a giftim – a gif victim – at the hands, or legs of Gareth Bale. By the same token though, Bartra’s header was one of the few highlights from that particular Clasico from a Blaugrana perspective, and as always, he generally performed quite admirably from a defensive standpoint. If we call upon him – nay, if we entrust him with this responsibility tomorrow, I know that Bartra will not let us down.
Perhaps, Bartra might just be our best option if Busquets isn’t fit enough to start – Mascherano can hold down the fort at pivote and drop back into a three-man backline where and when required. With Bale likely to start on the right-hand side of Real Madrid’s midfield/attack, Bartra can cope with the Welshman cutting inside far more readily than Jeremy Mathieu, and his composure in possession also gives him a distinct advantage over the oft-lumbering Frenchman.
At left-back, Jordi Alba should start his first Clasico and is probably still wondering why he didn’t start at the Bernabeu, just like I still am to this day. That decision probably didn’t cost us the match – many factors were at play, but it was the most notable screw-up from Enrique in his first Clasico. He must have learned his lesson – look for Alba to start tomorrow, and maybe he will pack his scoring boots for a change just in case Messi has another career day, as he did in midweek against Manchester City.
So many occasions we have been drawn to the edge of our seats by an incredible Messi through ball, only to slink back disappointed when it falls to Alba and the Catalan full-back usually shoots straight at the opposing goalkeeper. At least in midweek, Alba could claim by association that he fell victim to a superhuman display from Joe Hart, although the truth is that he probably should have done better.
In midfield, I’m actually backing Luis Enrique to restore Sergio Busquets to his usual role at pivote after three weeks on the sideline with an ankle injury. Yes, there’s a small chance that he might relapse, but there’s a similar chance that Messi, Neymar or anyone else could be stricken down with the same ailment, and if Busquets is ready to return, he will improve our team no end.
Our control of possession will be our first line of defense – if Real Madrid only have the ball for 25% of the match, they will logically have less time to expose our weaknesses. Likewise, our control of the tempo will be our primary weapon offensively, and Busquets’ ability to recycle possession and dictate the tempo in the absence of Xavi could prove vital to us unlocking what could be a disciplined Real defense.
And it would be foolish to underestimate the importance of height in our midfield – an area in which we can actually beat Real Madrid if Busquets and Rakitić start.
There’s no reason to suspect why Ivan Rakitić won’t start either; unlike last time, Rakitić has proven himself to be not only an integral member of the Barça midfield, but a crucial, irreplaceable figure in the team. Without him, we lose multiple dimensions both offensively and defensively. In case you missed it earlier, I waxed lyrical about our Croatian midfield general earlier – catch up on my tactical preview for this match to read much more praise for Ivan.
If we’re all agreed on Rakitić filling one of the two midfield berths for Barcelona, I think we can all agree that the final place will go to our vice-captain, Andrés Iniesta. Despite a slow start to the season and an error-strewn Clasico at the Bernabeu, Iniesta has rediscovered his spark so to speak in recent weeks.
Against Manchester City, Iniesta was influential. His performance against Rayo Vallecano ranked amongst the finest we had seen all season from Don Andrés and he was equally impressive in the Copa del Rey against Villarreal. There’s something to be said about players who peak at just the right time – will we see if Iniesta can keep up his good form tomorrow and inspire the Blaugrana to victory.
Finally, we move on to the attack. A fair few column inches have been dedicated to Lionel Messi this week and rightly so. His performance against Manchester City was magical, although it says it all when I say that it probably wasn’t his finest hour. His brace in the El Clasico semi-final...what about his four-goal haul against Arsenal? Heck, we also have his five-goal (!) display against Bayer Leverkusen...we’re pretty much spoilt for choice, and that’s if we only include his displays in the UEFA Champions League.
Should you open it up to Messi’s best ever performances in all competitions...well, it’s impossible to pick a favourite. The only constant is that Messi has always been a big-game player. He relishes the Clasico, and thrives on the pressure. Leading scorer in Clasico history? Check. Most assists in Clasico history? Check, again. With the adoration of 99,000 Culés behind him tomorrow at the Camp Nou, the world will be looking to Messi for another master-class and it’s up to him to deliver.
The only grievance I have with the increased media coverage of Messi this week is that it detracts and belittles his achievements over the past year – as if he’s suddenly become the best player in the world again.
Messi always has been, and always will be the best footballer to ever grace the game. There have been periods where he hasn’t necessarily been the most productive player on the planet in terms of goals scored, but in terms of pure footballing ability, Messi is always head and shoulders above his rivals.
Whether he’s going for goal, playing a pass or attempting a dribble, Messi is the best at everything he does – just try and argue; it’s impossible. He’s always been more accurate and clinical than Ronaldo. He creates more goals and probably more chances than any other player on the planet – and that’s in addition to scoring 50+ goals per season. This didn’t begin with his obliteration of Manchester City on Wednesday – it was simply the latest chapter in Messi’s tome of brilliance.
Enough ranting, let’s turn our attentions to the next member of the Barça attacking triumvirate: Neymar. We’ve talked about his goal in the first Clasico of the season enough – but let’s talk about his overall Clasico record: four games played, two goals scored and three assists. That’s over a goal contributed per match; just like Messi, Neymar is a player for the biggest occasions.
In spite of what many people indicated prior to his arrival in Catalunya, Neymar isn’t a selfish player either – especially against the best sides. There is not a single opposition that Neymar has created more goals against than Real Madrid; so much for the whole "arrogant, overrated child" that we were supposed to be signing huh?
At the tender age of 22, Neymar has many Clasicos ahead of him yet, but it isn’t ridiculous to picture him becoming one of the fixture’s all-time great performers – eclipsing Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Cristiano and who knows, maybe even Messi? Well, maybe we shouldn’t go that far, but you get the picture: Neymar is on the path to becoming a legend, and it’s his performances in matches like this that will fast-track that process.
Luis Suarez however doesn’t really have the luxury of time. He didn’t have time to prepare properly for the first meeting between the two sides – albeit as a result of his own stupidity – and he doesn’t have a few seasons to make his mark in this fixture. Instead, we bought him for the here and now. It’s all well and good putting Rayo Vallecano to the sword, but we need Suarez to deliver against the Real Madrids of the world – just as he did against Manchester City.
The style of the match should suit him. He will have chances up against Sergio Ramos and Pepe, and the spaces that Lionel Messi and Neymar will create for him should allow him to thrive and delight the Camp Nou crowd. However, the crowd are fickle, and patience is a commodity we cannot afford in El Clasico. If he gets a chance tomorrow, he better bury it without remorse – because the fans can turn very quickly and the last thing we need is a Suarez short on confidence, again.
A mitigating factor, or perhaps the added bonus that will endear him to the Catalan faithful will be his pressing. No-one works harder than the Uruguayan and he could force an error from Pepe and/or Ramos – they aren’t exactly above that kind of thing after all.
Suarez isn’t alone though – everyone else on the team must follow his example: give it your all and then some more. That’s all we can ask of them. Let’s hope it’s enough to secure a victory – let’s remind Real Madrid who rules the roost in La Liga.
Luka Modric is back and has been for over a week now. Sergio Ramos is also back. James Rodriguez isn’t quite there yet, but Real Madrid are slowly but surely getting back to full-strength. Admittedly, it hasn’t really reflected in their performances as of late, but it only takes them a single match, a single moment really to find their form.
Against Schalke, they were diabolical – flat-out awful. Against Athletic Bilbao they looked ordinary and vulnerable. Then came Levante, one of the league’s out-of-form sides and Real Madrid brushed them aside off the back of a strong first-half performance. In that opening period, they showed glimpses of the form that saw them canter out to what seemed to be an insurmountable lead at the top of the table.
Gareth Bale bagged himself a brace, his first goals in ten appearances and while Ronaldo and Benzema drew a blank, they seemed more comfortable than they had against Athletic. Then came the second half, and whether they were saving something for the Clasico, confident that the result was secured or simply fatigued, they struggled. Against Levante. At the Santiago Bernabeu.
There may be a silver lining to every cloud, but there are still clouds. And plenty of them over the Bernabeu at the moment. Carlo Ancelotti is under pressure. Florentino Perez is on the defensive. Cristiano Ronaldo has transformed into Triste-iano again, perhaps as a result of developments in his personal life. Whatever the case, Ronaldo isn’t himself and Real Madrid are suffering.
So much of their brilliance relies on him finding his form – just as Barcelona depend on Lionel Messi to take them to that next level – but as with Messi, you can never count Ronaldo out. Sure, he doesn’t seem to be playing well at the moment, but does that mean you wouldn’t back him to score tomorrow? He could grab a hat-trick just like that – his "cold streak" could be over quicker than you could say calma calma.
Across the field, players seem to be out of form for Los Blancos, but the quality remains. Iker Casilass will start in goal and while his glory days seems to be in the past, he could quite easily pull off a wonder-show à la Joe Hart to keep the Blaugrana at bay. Dani Carvajal’s place could come under pressure this summer with the proposed signing of Danilo from Porto, but he was one of Real’s best performers against us at the Bernabeu.
Sergio Ramos only recently returned from injury, although his pedigree as one of the finest centre-backs in football is unquestionable and despite his transgressions, the same has to be said about Pepe. Can you pick out a more consistent performer from the past five seasons in the centre of defense across European football? Maybe Thiago Silva, but that’s about it – Pepe probably deserves more plaudits and praise than he receives; Barça will have to be careful around him tomorrow for sure.
Marcelo is Marcelo; sometimes he can mess up defensively, but he’s usually dependable and can decide a game at the offensive end with his link-up play and quite spectacular eye for goal. We’ve gone over Bale before, and while he hasn’t always demonstrated why Perez shelled out quite so much for him, his record in "big matches" has been incredible. A winner in the Copa del Rey final? Another winner in the UEFA Champions League final? Bale saves his best for the biggest audiences and tomorrow will surely qualify for one of his special performances – unless we can stop him.
Toni Kroos won the World Cup in the summer and alongside Luka Modric, dominated the midfield in the first Clasico at the Bernabeu. The German also takes a mean set-piece, as evidenced by his assist on Pepe’s header – the goal that put Madrid ahead in October. Then we have Isco, the same Isco that created Madrid’s final goal on that humbling night. Add in Ronaldo and Karim Benzema – the only Madrid player who seems to be improving in 2015 – and damn...Real really have a squad to be feared.
Real Madrid: WWDLLW
Real Madrid 3-1 FC Barcelona – 25th October 2014 – La Liga
Neymar put the Blaugrana ahead, much to the delight of the travelling Barcelona fans, but Real Madrid struck back courtesy of a penalty from Cristiano Ronaldo, a header from Pepe and a clinical finish on a swift counter-attack from Karim Benzema.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitić, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Real Madrid (4-4-2): Casillas; Carvajal, Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo; Bale, Kroos, Modric, Isco; Ronaldo, Benzema
Goals. Drama. Excitement. Tension. Relief. In that order as well: 4-2 Barça.
- El Clasico: Underlying Points of Interest including Neymar and Gareth Bale
- FC Barcelona v Real Madrid CF: El Clásico Combined XI - When Stars Collide
- El Clasico: FC Barcelona on the Rise and the Decline of Real Madrid
- Barcelona vs. Real Madrid: El Clasico Key Players (Beyond Lionel Messi)
- FC Barcelona News: 21 March 2015: Luis Enrique Talks to the Press, Busquets Returns to Training