FC Barcelona play host to Real Madrid this Tuesday evening in the final installment of what has been an epic, and at times surprising four game El Clasico extravaganza. Overshadowed by drama, on the field and off, this Champions League semi-final pairing of Europe’s biggest rivals has produced cards, profanity-laced press conferences, furious finger pointing, and a few moments of truly brilliant football. Racked with ever-increasing injuries, the Catalans will look to turn on the style at home in what is sure to be a thrilling encounter against José Mourinho’s hubris-swollen Real Madrid as both teams fight to book a ticket to Wembley in a few weeks time.
The lead up to last week’s first leg in Madrid showed signs of on-field drama from an early stage; when have you seen Guardiola explode in a press conference? I certainly never have. While Mourinho’s constant baiting of the opposition continued in the week prior to kick off in Madrid, his post-match accusations in the wake of a deserved 2-0 defeat have reached new heights of desperation. I’d like to take a moment to dissect one or two of the more outlandish comments because it needs to be done. In a week where Barcelona have been pilloried in the press for widespread accusations of diving and poor sportsmanship, I think a moment of level-headed analysis is necessary.
“Barcelona always get help from the referee on the European stage”. While this is categorically not true, it is an interesting point of discussion (and, in classic Mourinho fashion, a clever way of diverting attention from his team’s own short comings). Making numerous references to the lack of penalties called at Stamford Bridge in the 2008/2009 season semi-final against Chelsea, Mourinho actually works to defeat his own argument. I seem to recall Eric Abidal being given a red card for absolutely nothing in that match; while there were a number of fairly clear penalties not called during that game, it hardly seems fair to blame Barcelona for poor refereeing.
The most contentious moment of the first leg in Madrid last week, and also a reference for the ‘Barcelona get help from the ref…’ claims, Pepe’s sending off in the second half for a somewhat rough challenge on Dani Alves warrants discussion as well. While that challenge alone might not have warranted a direct red (and video replays of the incident seem to support that claim), Madrid were, in a sense, asking for it. Fielding another defense-or-nothing lineup intent on disrupting Barcelona’s flow of play, with Pepe again stuck in the middle as bulldog-cum-brick-wall, it was only a matter of time before one of the merengues took their boss’ words too far. When the game plan is to be overly physical in the face of fluid passing, chances are very high that your team is going to accumulate cards. It’s hard to feel sorry for a player getting sent off that had spent the previous 60 minutes playing what looked like American football.
As for Barcelona’s culpability in the mess that was the first leg, it must be said that a few players acted shamefully. And, once again, Sergio Busquets was the main character. Someone must sit the big Catalan down and explain to him that nothing good comes out of play-acting in front of several hundred million people. Last season, against another Mourninho-led team, it resulted in the expulsion of former Barcelona player Thiago Motta; it’s just not very becoming, is it? Meanwhile, back-up goalie Pinto managed to get himself ejected from the bench for getting involved in a mini-brawl at the halftime whistle. Pinto can be forgiven for getting frustrated at having to watch his teammates get battered back and forth during the first half, but there is a very American phrase for moments like that: save it for the parking lot. There is a time and a place for everything in sport, but not that, not then.
While the dust settled from last Wednesday’s encounter, both Barcelona and Madrid proceeded to throw away three points on the weekend to teams considerably further down the La Liga pecking order. While Madrid were humbled at home to lowly Real Zaragoza, Barcelona missed the opportunity to go eleven points clear at the top of the table by losing away to a feisty Real Sociedad. Not too much should be read into either of these matches: both clubs fielded considerably weakened teams in preparation for Tuesday night.
Tuesday’s European encounter will be one of the defining moments for this season’s Champions League, and one for Culés to look forward to. Only two sides have overturned a first leg home defeat in the semi-finals of the tournament, and with a pair of away goals from the first leg, one has to favor the Catalans at home. Even Mourinho said as much in his post-match press conference (although it must be admitted that this was more of an exercise in pre-emptive excuse making than anything else). This two goal deficit means Madrid must go for bust; Mourinho will do away with recent defense-centric lineups, and should field his strongest attacking lineup in hopes of upsetting Barcelona.
Barcelona continue to suffer from mounting injuries, some more cruel than others. Bojan, Abidal and Maxwell continue to miss out on the action, and knocks picked up at the weekend’s match now mean that both the young Montoya and Milito will also be absent from the bench. Poor, poor Milito; plagued with injuries during the last few seasons, the 30-year-old Argentine will surely be thinking about his remaining time in the Catalan capitol after picking up yet another hamstring injury.
There is some good news coming from the Ciutat Esportiva: both Iniesta and captain Puyol are back in training after suffering from some niggling injuries, and could potentially take the field Tuesday evening. The boost that an in-form Iniesta would bring to the Catalan’s midfield would be enormous, and given the need for Mascherano to slot in at the back, would be a welcome lifeline.
Madrid, while largely free of injuries, will be without the services of both the suspended Sergio Ramos, and the villain of the first leg, Pepe. Ricardo Carvalho will return from suspension (despite managing to get himself sent off in Saturday’s La Liga defeat to Zaragoza), and will likely start in the back line of what should be a radically altered Real Madrid side.
Madrid must attack from the start Tuesday evening if they nurse any serious intentions of overcoming the first leg deficit. Expect Mourinho to field an explosively attack-minded eleven, probably in the mold of a 4-1-3-2, with an emphasis on wing-play. This allows Madrid to actually have a go at scoring goals, while also affording Mourinho the opportunity for one of those charming “at least I tried to attack” post-match press conference. Di Maria has been brilliant down the sides in previous encounters, and more than once has left the Catalan wingbacks in his wake. With Barcelona’s well-noted lack of height, the merengues will likely be lofting crosses into the goalmouth with regularity as they look to snatch an early goal in the Camp Nou. Madrid’s success in this match lies largely on the shoulders of Di Maria, Özil and Ronaldo; if any of these players suffer an off day as Ronaldo did in the first leg, Madrid’s already slim hopes of qualification will be sunk.
This may sound like a bizarre lineup, but bear with me. I envision Arbeloa, Carvalho, Albiol and Marcelo as the back four, with Diarra floating somewhere above them. This would leave Xabi Alonso free to (finally!) play as the center-midfielder that he actually is, supported by Di Maria and Özil on the wings, with Ronaldo and Benzema lining up together in attack.
What does this mean for Barcelona? Free to actually play football without the worry of crunching tackles during every possession, this game should see a good deal of space open up in the middle of the park (a pleasant change from the last few meetings between these two). The key job for the Catalan defense in this encounter will be to keep a close eye on the runs of Di Maria, but also the dangerous Marcelo. The Brazilian’s snaking runs from the backfield caused numerous problems in last week’s match, and allowed attention to be diverted from both Ronaldo and Di Maria. While Barcelona never go into a match looking to play exclusively on the counter attack, I suspect that this will be where any Blaugrana goals come Tuesday night as Madrid surge forward in attack.
Pep may even put in Keita instead of Iniesta to nullify Madrid’s attacking threat to a good extent. The Malian was excellent in the first leg as he provided steel and stability in the midfield but I think Iniesta would play this game in his usual left midfield position.
FC Barcelona Lineup: Valdés, Dani Alves, Piquè, Mascherano, Puyol*, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta*, Villa, Messi, Pedro
Real Madrid Linuep: Casillas, Arbeloa, Carvalho, Albiol, Marcelo, Diarra, Xabi Alonso, Di Maria, Özil, Ronaldo, Benzema
Match Prediction: In a game where Real Madrid must attack if they are to have any hopes of securing passage to the Champions League Final, expect them to score at least once. The height advantage over the diminutive Catalans is enormous, and is especially galling during set pieces (which Barcelona are notoriously poor at defending). That being said, any side that comes to the Camp Nou with the aim of attacking invariably leaves holes at the back; Messi & co. are notoriously good at finding these gaps, and exploiting them. A thrilling encounter should be on display, with the sort of dramatic end-to-end football that lifts fans out of their seats, sprinkled with a few nail-baiting set pieces on both ends. A valiant effort at attacking football from the Merengues will be too little, too late at the Camp Nou.
FC Barcelona 2-1 Real Madrid