I awoke the Sunday before the decisive first leg of Barcelona’s Champions League semi-final to an odd, if not disturbing quote from Sergio Busquets: “Real Madrid are the worst rival that we could face at this time.” In Marca, no less. While Busquets went on to give all of the tired platitudes that readers of international sport are by now used to (“We must stay by our philosophy”, “We are a united team”, etc.), this statement struck me as missing the point somewhat. As the reigning Spanish champions, a title Barcelona now look set to retain, the Blaugrana should relish the opportunity to prove their philosophy against that of their most hated rivals on the European stage.
True, their last two outings against Los Merengues did not end as expected. Jose Mourinho once again proved that he is an excellent coach, and I don’t think that anybody has ever doubted that Madrid have in their team some truly world class talent. But this should act as motivation; Barcelona are a team with an identity that is universally respected. Revenge of the highest order is a dream that now burns in the hearts of millions of Culés all over the world, and the next two weeks will decide how the 2010/2011 season is remembered on the whole.
One point that can be taken away from the recent meetings with Madrid is that, no matter what the eventual outcome of our next two meetings, Barcelona have played true to their style. Madrid have lacked an identity all season, playing fierce attacking football against some teams, and odd, quasi-counter attacking against others, sometimes losing attention at inopportune moments (Sporting Gijón come to mind). Barcelona, meanwhile, have continued to try their possession-over-all-else style that usually see’s the team steamroll over opponents left and right. But something new has happened; it has stopped working, at least against Mourinho’s Madrid. Finally it would seem, after three seasons as the reincarnation of the Cruyff Dream Team, others have learned how to play against possession-dominant Barcelona. Constantly closing down space in the Catalan midfield, Madrid have found success in their last two outings in this fashion; and Barcelona, I must say, have yet to respond.
Real Madrid play host to Barcelona this Wednesday evening in what is sure to be a season defining game for both of the Spanish giants. Barcelona, still licking their wounds from the previous encounters between the two sides, should walk out of the tunnel with a full-strength squad, assuming captain Carles Puyol is able to recover from the newest knock to his hamstring. They will face a Madrid side suddenly flush with confidence, fresh from a 6-3 mauling of Valencia on the weekend, and as Guardiola himself has labeled them, “favourites”. What must Barcelona do to recover their recent dominance over the Madridistas? One word: shoot.
Even while under constant harassment by the Madrid starting eleven, at no point were the Catalans in danger of conceding great amounts of possession in the previous two meetings. What Barcelona must do is shoot the ball; dominance in possession is meaningless without goals. It has become frustrating as of late to watch stunningly beautiful build-up play amount to nothing but running around the top of the box. Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Villa, Alves, they can all shoot from distance. Why don’t they? If Barcelona are to right the wrongs of their recent meetings with their arch rivals, new emphasis needs to be placed on the final third of the pitch.
Having rested the majority of the first team against a feisty Osasuna side on the weekend, coach Guardiola looks set to field his strongest possible team in the Bernabeu come Wednesday evening. The only question mark hanging over the squad concerns the health of captain Puyol and left-back Maxwell. While Maxwell’s absence had been easier to fill with the in-form Adriano, Guardiola this time around has lost the former Sevilla player to thigh injury. It has been Puyol’s absence that has resulted in some shuffling in the midfield. Or, more likely, the reappearance of Mascherano next to Piqué; Busquets, while an admirable stand-in, is of much better use in the midfield. And he should find himself there come Wednesday evening, tasked with keeping an eye on Madrid’s roving midfielders. David Villa will hopefully continue to regain his newly-found goal scoring form and will be accompanied up top by Pedro and Messi, the latter of whom will be looking to bag his 51st goal of the campaign. A truly astonishing figure.
Madrid, meanwhile, are likely to continue to use the formation that brought them success in the Copa Del Rey final. Aside from losing Carvalho to suspension, Madrid will be at full strength, barring some late training ground mishap (and one can always hope, especially given Sergio Ramos’ very public penchant for clumsiness). Cristiano Ronaldo, as always, will start, and will likely do so alongside the excellent Angel Di Maria and Ozil. Don’t be surprised to see Higuaín come on at some point during the proceedings, having regained his scoring form after a return from injury.
The Madrid midfield will have to undergo some changes with Sami Khedira possibly out for the rest of the season from injury. Mourinho may replace him with Lasanna Diarra. Xabi Alonso is excellent, even when played a bit out of position in the deeper portions of the field. They will be joined by Pepe, the hard-hitting Portugese defender who has suddenly been a revelation since tasked with breaking up the play of the Catalans, seemingly with as much violence as can be tolerated by the referee.
The back four will all be familiar faces: Sergio Ramos (a.k.a Señor butterfingers), Arbeloa, Albiol (standing in for the suspended Carvalho), and Marcelo, another violence-prone figure. Keeper and captain Casillas will likely need to keep a close eye on the Brazilian’s temper; there were moments of near-insanity from this character in the Copa Del Rey final, and being sent of in the semi-finals of the Champions League would be a disaster for Madrid.
So then, on to the prediction. I heavily suspect that Guardiola will tell his players to keep it simple, continue with the style of play they have perfected, but perhaps shoot the ball a bit more. There is no reason not to test Casillas from distance early on, and a statement of intent from the Catalans should remind Madrid that it is only as of late that they are able to stifle the mesmerizing football of Barcelona. That being said, Madrid are in excellent form, and will no-doubt enter the game with a sky-high level of confidence (bordering on smugness, as is usually the case with Madrid). Both teams should be well rested, and ready for what could prove to be one of the tournament’s most epic battles to date. An away goal or two for Barcelona should be the ultimate aim, but a win in the Bernabeu would be a massive step towards Wembley. But I don’t expect one.
FC Barcelona line-up: Valdès, Dani Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Mascherano, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Villa, Messi, Pedro
Real Madrid line-up: Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Arbeloa, Albiol, Marcelo, Pepe, Xabi Alonso, Lasanna Diarra, Ozil, Di Maria, Ronaldo.
Match Prediction: Real Madrid CF 1-1 FC Barcelona