The battle for La Liga could be won or lost tomorrow, as FC Barcelona prepare to travel to the Spanish capital to take on arch rivals Real Madrid in the season’s final El Clasico. For the Blaugrana, a defeat would surely end their hopes of securing a third successive title under the guidance of head coach, Luis Enrique as Real Madrid, ably lead by Zinedine Zidane, would extend their lead at the top to six points with a victory tomorrow. Given that Los Blancos still hold a game in hand over Barcelona, anything less than a Barça victory is likely to bring the title race to a premature end.
After the disappointment of elimination from the UEFA Champions League in midweek, a second successive setback for the Blaugrana would be devastating from a psychological perspective and while the fate of Luis Enrique has already been confirmed, this is the type of scenario in which another poor result could have long-lasting impacts. The aggregate defeat to Juventus did not herald the end of an era and it alone should not serve as the trigger for a complete overhaul, but couple that defeat with a convincing loss to Real Madrid tomorrow and… well, let’s not even think about that possibility.
Despite the odds being stacked in Real Madrid’s favour, there are some positives that Barcelona can take ahead of tomorrow’s match. The first is that they dismantled Real Madrid on their last visit to the Santiago Bernabeu; while it seems like an eternity ago, it was just last season that Barcelona smashed four past Real in their own backyard and while much has changed since that night, the Blaugrana have shown this season that they are still capable of those kind of performances, even if it is on an increasingly irregular basis.
The second is that Real Madrid will be without Pepe and Raphael Varane, leaving Nacho Fernandez to start alongside Sergio Ramos in the centre of defense. Los Blancos have not kept a clean sheet against Barcelona since the Copa del Rey final in 2011, and one could see that trend continuing tomorrow given their absentees.
In fact, even while the media would have you believe that Barcelona are the only team in Spain with defensive issues, consider how Real have kept just three clean sheets in their last 22 matches. By comparison, Barcelona have kept three clean sheets in their last ten matches, and a total of seven in their last 22 fixtures. The Blaugrana defense is far from perfect, but it would be naïve to suggest that Barcelona are up against anything as impressive as what they faced on Wednesday evening.
The third is that Neymar has travelled with the squad, as the ongoing saga with Barcelona’s appeal to the TAD continues and while he might not ultimately play any part in the match – either as a result of an official decision being communicated, or as a precaution against any potential penalties – the uncertainty will be playing on Zidane’s mind as he must plan for both possibilities, each of which come with their own unique set of challenges.
So, even as Real Madrid progressed to the UEFA Champions League semi-finals with a comprehensive aggregate victory over Bayern Munich in midweek, not all hope is lost. If this squad has taught us anything over the past few years it’s that sometimes the best results come when we least expect it.
The key news story headed into the Clasico will be Neymar, as at the time of publish, it remains to be seen whether he can play a part in tomorrow’s match or not. The club seem to be taking an aggressive approach against the ban, lodging numerous appeals not in the hope of overturning the ban, but simply for the sake of an appeal – as the “conviction” of a three match ban will not stand until all avenues of appeal have been exhausted and upheld. Due to the infrequency of these committees meeting, the club have essentially tried to find and exploit a loophole in the letter of the law.
However, the club are almost certainly not operating in the spirit of the law, and with a potential threat of the result being voided if an ineligible player is fielded, FC Barcelona need to be very careful indeed. For all the mileage that Culés got out of laughing at Real Madrid for fielding Denis Cheryshev in the Copa del Rey last season despite his suspension, this is clearly more of a pre-meditated move on the club’s part.
Personally, I have nothing against the decision – irrespective of how the club chooses to act at kick-off. Neymar is an essential player to this team and we should look to exhaust all of our options before we accept his suspension, particularly for a match of this magnitude and importance. Likewise, if we choose to leave him out, I can understand why given that the suspension was enforced and the potential penalties, even if they are not clearly defined in the regulations.
It would be a little trite to turn this entire situation into either a dig at Neymar for his behaviour in the match against Malaga, or an attack on the management for the depth of the squad. It was simply something that happened in the heat of the moment and to claim that Barcelona should plan for these eventualities by having an equivalently talented player sat on the bench is to be so detached from reality that even a save on the latest instalment of FIFA would look more realistic by comparison.
Likewise, there’s no agenda, bias or conspiracy at hand either; whether he plays or not, this is simply the latest in long line of Spanish football embarrassments. Heck, we just saw a player score a winning goal in injury time with his hand in the Villarreal vs Leganes game, so let’s not act like the officiating is consistent enough to hand an advantage to one particular team either.
Anyway, enough with the rant; Neymar is the game-time decision and everything else is as it was and will be for the rest of the season. Jeremy Mathieu is injured, so he’s not with the squad and this still means that we could see either the 3-4-3, or an orthodox 4-3-3. If Neymar is able to play, then I think the 3-4-3 will be preferred, but otherwise I would expect Enrique to opt for the 4-3-3.
The good news for Zidane is that he can welcome Gareth Bale back into the squad after the Welshman’s latest injury had labelled him as questionable for this very fixture. From a tactical perspective, there are some who would argue that his return benefits the Blaugrana as it means that Isco will likely be demoted to the bench, but that would be doing a disservice to Bale and the different kind of threat he brings to the Real attack.
Of course, he is not as capable as Isco as serving as the team’s playmaker, but the thought of Bale given the freedom of the touchline against a potential Barcelona 3-4-3 is something I am going to be losing sleep over at least. Then of course we have the set piece threat that he poses (even if Ronaldo still pulls rank on most free-kicks), which is in addition to the standard set piece threat of Toni Kroos and Sergio Ramos.
In the last meeting between the two sides, we were treated to a cagey affair which Barcelona seemed to edge as soon as they struck the game’s opening goal through Luis Suarez, only for Ramos to head in an equaliser in injury-time from a Luka Modric free-kick. Barcelona’s set-piece defense has arguably declined since then as well, so the Blaugrana will have to be careful not to give too many free-kicks away on the flanks – perhaps opting to give Ronaldo more attempts from distance by showing the Madrid players inside before bringing them down.
In any case, it’s unlikely to be Bale or Isco or Ronaldo who holds the key for Real Madrid tomorrow. Instead, Casemiro is arguably more important to the team and a lot will depend on how well he can anchor the midfield so as to nullify the threat of Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta. Or perhaps Marcelo, who will be afforded more space if Messi is a little lax on his defensive duties.
Interestingly, this might be the first Clasico in recent memory in which all the pressure is on Real Madrid. The Blaugrana are deemed to be a team in decline, and there have been countless articles written in the past couple of weeks claiming that the balance of power is shifting back to Real. They know that with this current 3-6 point cushion in the standings that a draw would also leave them as strong favourites to claim the title.
However, to complete this shift a draw probably wouldn’t be good enough. Barcelona’s period of transcendent dominance was characterised by their dominance of this very fixture. 5-0. 6-2. 4-0. These were the type of scorelines that Barcelona created when they asserted their superiority over Real Madrid. Now, if the ball is truly in Real’s court then shouldn’t they be creating their own special moments to mark this era just like we have our four-goal wins at the Bernabeu, and the Manita at the Camp Nou?
The table may favour Zidane, but the pressure is still on.
Real Madrid: WWDWWW
FC Barcelona 1-1 Real Madrid – 3rd December 2016 – La Liga
After a goalless first half, Barcelona claimed the game’s opening goal courtesy of Luis Suarez and seemed destined for victory until a last-gasp header from Sergio Ramos ensured that Real would leave with a share of the spoils.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Umtiti; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Paco, Suarez
Real Madrid (4-3-3): Navas; Carvajal, Nacho, Ramos, Marcelo; Modric, Casemiro, Kroos; Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo
Worryingly, Barcelona haven’t scored a second-half goal in their last four matches. I think this is another cagey affair, also ending a goal apiece.