The biggest week of Barcelona’s season so far is off to a great start with two hard-fought wins against Athletic Bilbao and Shakhtar Donetsk, but the biggest test takes place this Saturday as Barça face their biggest rivals Real Madrid in the Greatest Game in the Game as the first El Clásico of the season takes place at the Montjuïc Olympic Stadium with top spot in the La Liga table on the line.
Despite their unbeaten record in all competition this season it is safe to say Barça come into this one as underdogs thanks in large part to the injury crisis that forces them to face Madrid without some of their best, most important players. Avoiding defeat would already be a good result in the current circumstances, and finding a way to steal all three points would be a dream scenario to end a crucial week on a high.
Madrid are hungry to win this one and establish themselves as the early title favorites, and this should be quite the war. Here’s how we think Xavi Hernández will line up his troops for Saturday’s battle.
We still don’t know how many, if any, of the six first teamers currently injured will be in the squad for this one, but Xavi has made it clear he won’t take unnecessary risks and it would be a huge shock to see any of the injured players in the starting XI. So we have to assume the coach will work with what he’s got right now, and there are a few big decisions to make despite the apparent lack of options.
The biggest choice to make is at the back, with João Cancelo the number one choice at right-back but not exactly the best matchup for this particular game. Xavi’s biggest and best tactical innovation as Barça boss is using Ronald Araujo at full-back to deal with Vinicius Junior, and the big doubt is whether or not the coach will stick with a formula that has worked wonders the last two years in favor of the more attacking option in Cancelo.
The answer, we think, is a combination of both: Xavi will likely start Araujo at right-back and Cancelo further forward as a right winger, with Andreas Christensen and Iñigo Martínez as the two center-backs and Alejandro Balde at left-back. It’s a way to keep the Araujo-Vinicius matchup intact while also giving Cancelo full license and freedom to impact the game up front, with the Portuguese also tasked with helping Araujo so the Uruguayan isn’t isolated against the dangerous Brazilian for the entire game.
Xavi always favors a more defensively sound team for Clásicos, and that approach has worked more often than not against Madrid. Cancelo’s presence makes it a fascinating decision for the coach and will force Xavi to think outside the box, but Cancelo is more than good enough going forward to not make it seem like too defensive of a choice to play him on the wing.
Gavi is back after missing the Shakhtar Donetsk game through suspension, which was not a bad thing considering the never-ending run of fixtures he’d played for club and country and the physical demand of a game like El Clásico. Gavi will be fresh and ready to go, and we know Ilkay Gündogan will be one of his midfield partners.
The question is who the third midfielder will be, or if Xavi will decide to use a four-man midfield to match Madrid’s numbers in the center of the park. If that’s the case, then both Oriol Romeu and Fermín López will start with young López the one chosen to play further forward as a false left winger.
But since we think Cancelo will start up front alongside two natural forwards, there are only three midfield places up for grabs and only one player deserves the final spot: Fermín, who has established himself as a serious contributor at the age of 20 and has already proven in recent games he is mentally and physically ready for a big game like the Clásico.
If our prediction of Cancelo as a right winger is correct, then the final two spots in the team are easy to guess: Ferran Torres and João Félix will complete the front three, with Lamine Yamal back on the bench to start this one. It’s hard to see a start for Yamal even if Cancelo plays at right-back, since Xavi would more likely go with a four-man midfield in favor of a more solid defensive structure at least to start.
Yamal hasn’t been quite as scintilating as he was in the first few weeks of the season but the 16-year-old is more than capable of wreaking havoc as a substitute, especially if the more experienced players get off to a strong start and give Lamine a chance to make his mark in El Clásico in the second half.
Possible XI: Ter Stegen; Araujo, Christensen, Iñigo, Balde; Fermín, Gündogan, Gavi; Cancelo, Ferran, Félix (4-3-3)
How do you think Barcelona should line up against Real Madrid? Let us know your thoughts, predictions and teams in the comments below!