It’s the first Clasico of the season, with one point separating Barcelona and Real Madrid at the top of the La Liga table.
Barcelona are the reigning Spanish champions, but this isn’t the same Real Madrid team that came in a distant second place during the 2022-2023 campaign.
Carlo Ancelotti has a new star player, and very different tactics, that Xavi will have to consider in preparing his team for the match.
This is a team in the middle of an injury crisis that will leave the manager short on options. This is also a team in winning form that has found a way to keep moving forward in spite of the hurdles placed in front of them.
Now is the big challenge. It’s one thing to get past Athletic Club and Shakhtar Donestk by the skin of your teeth, and quite another to stand tall in the face of adversity in the world’s greatest footballing rivalry.
The Barcelona team that Xavi can field is short handed, and has very limited Clasico experience.
Maybe, just maybe, with the right preparation and motivation, that naivete could benefit a young Barcelona team with everything to prove.
It could also be a recipe for disaster if Xavi isn’t careful.
The manager has some important questions to answer ahead of the showdown on Montjuic.
How will Xavi manage the players coming back from injury?
Shall we count the players who were missing in action this week?
Take a quick glance at the gameday roster Barcelona put out to take on Shakhtar Donetsk, and tell me if that’s a team you feel comfortable with taking on Real Madrid.
Luckily, Barcelona’s defensive line is mostly intact. Joules Kounde is a blow, but not one that is detrimental given the depth at center back with Ronald Araujo, Andreas Christensen, and Inigo Martinez all available.
Questions begin to be raised in how to approach the midfield.
Oriol Romeu will be a given. He’s fit after getting time off for the international break, and even though he makes a mistake from time to time, he can be relied on to provide important defensive cover, and to help in keeping possession, and getting the ball where it needs to go in the buildup.
Xavi will then have to select two attacking midfielders.
Pedri is out, and Frenkie de Jong is a maybe.
For me, not having Frenkie on the field would hurt more than any other player in this matchup. Frenkie simply makes the team more confident in the attack. He is full of ideas and initiative, and won’t buckle under the pressure of the moment.
Realistically, however, if he plays at all, it will likely be in a cameo role off the bench.
That leaves Gavi and Ilkay Gundogan to seemingly pick themselves. Gavi had a rest midweek while serving a suspension, while Fermin Lopez put in the performance of the year in this place. More to come on that in a moment.
My biggest question, aside from which injured players may be able to play, is whether a player like Gundogan has the fitness to give one hundred percent after the back-to-back games he’s played for club and country. Could Fermin be a shock replacement for him?
That could depend on the injured players on the forward line, and whether Xavi goes with a traditional 4-3-3.
Robert Lewandowski and Raphinha are set to be fit, but it’s not a guarantee they can put in a full shift, or that they will be risked at all.
My prediction is that, alongside Frenkie, the players coming back from injury at best will play a role off the bench. But that means Xavi will be forced to use his young guns, whether he likes it or not.
How much trust to put in the young players?
Sorry Marc Guiu, I don’t think this section applies to you. Unless there’s an absolute need, I don’t see the breakout star of the week getting minutes in the Clasico.
Lamine Yamal and Fermin Lopez, however, are serious candidates to be the protagonists of this story.
Yamal has cooled off a bit since his hot start to the season, but is still showing an ability to get past defenders in one versus one situations. That makes him a valued asset on the right wing, especially with Raphinha’s return in doubt.
Whether to play Fermin from the start will be Xavi’s biggest decision to make.
Now, he doesn’t have to use Fermin. In the midfield, he could go with Gavi and Gundogan and be done.
From there, he could use Lamine, Ferran, and Joao Felix on the forward line.
One thing he cannot do is use Fermin as a forward. In my opinion, if you use Fermin at all in this game, it should be in the same role he played against Shakhtar. He gives you so much workrate in the midfield, and in the final third, he is proving to be goal dangerous as an almost second striker behind the number nine. His timing and placement in and around the box has been something to behold.
In my mind, you will need Felix and Lamine out wide to stretch the game, and give Barcelona the ability to attack in transition.
Combine that with the presence of three sharks in Gavi, Fermin, and Ferran, and you may have just what you need to get the critical goal to snatch the game from the Galacticos.
But that would also imply that Xavi gets it right with his defensive approach to the game.
How will Barcelona line up defensively?
Last season, Ronald Araujo was the secret weapon that pocketed Vinicius Junior as a full-back, and neutralized Real Madrid’s ability to counter attack.
This season, Real Madrid has abandoned the 4-3-3 in favor of a 4-3-1-2 that has Jude Bellingham playing behind two strikers who have the freedom to pick their space, and attack from a variety of areas on the field.
This will be a new challenge for Xavi, and the question will be how much he has studied the new look Real Madrid team.
At this point, it isn’t even a question whether Araujo will play as a full-back. Tactically, it isn’t necessary, and doesn’t make sense.
Joao Cancelo continues to be one of, if not, the most consistent Barca performers from game to game. He will play on Saturday, alongside Alejandro Balde, which means that Barcelona will naturally have more attacking players on the field than they did a season ago when playing against Real Madrid.
That also would imply that Araujo will get the start in the middle alongside Andreas Christensen, two very proven options.
But in such a challenging game, where Xavi’s best attacking players are injured or just coming back from injury, does this lineup bode well for Barcelona’s chances to emerge victorious?
Is there any logic to dropping Cancelo for tactical reasons, and to add a third center back to the defensive line in his place? Or would this be too cautious, taking too much away from what Cancelo can contribute to the team in the final third?
There are no easy answers here. These are tough questions for the manager to answer.
It’s still early on in the season, and a tactical approach, that could keep the score low, allowing Barca to eek out a win, or settle for a draw, may seem prudent to the manager.
But then again, this is a home game, and the crowd will be cheering on their team to play bravely according to the heritage of the club.
This may not be the most exciting Clasico for the neutral, but it will be full of intrigue for fans who follow the teams closely.
All eyes are on Xavi. The Barca manager has a big role to play.