La Liga is now Real Madrid’s to lose. It has been sitting quite comfortably in their lap for so long, and the once 10-point gap has been reduced to four. So now it’s up to Barcelona to once again dig up their reserves to nick a win because anything less would be insufficient to reduce the four point deficit. With five games to go including El Clásico, the margin of error gets smaller and smaller. There is still time for a comeback, but everyone needs to step up and help Messi by taking up scoring responsibilities.
There are lots of reasons to be optimistic after reviewing some of the statistics of FC Barcelona at Camp Nou. Barcelona are unbeaten at the Camp Nou in La Liga, having won 15 matches and drawn 1. Barcelona also have the best defensive record on home soil having conceded only 8 goals at Camp Nou thus far in La Liga. Real Madrid have not beaten Barcelona in the Spanish Primera Division since their 4-1 triumph at the end of the 2007/08 season. And last but not least Barcelona have not tasted defeat against Real Madrid in their last 7 meetings in all competitions.
But we have to remember that Real Madrid this season is a different beast altogether than the one we faced last year. They are now 1 goal away from the record of most goals scored in a season after having 107 goals with five games left to go. That is one very impressive statistic and silences the critics who have accused Mourinho of being too defensive-minded. Di Maria, Ozil, and Ronaldo are in the list of top 5 assist providers in La Liga with Messi and Dani Alves the other two. Real Madrid is also known to strike a knockout blow so fast, especially when the opponent feel that they still have a chance in the game, with their multitude avenues of scoring goals.
Slipping away and committing mistakes in the following two matches will spell an end to La Liga and Champions League title aspirations for both clubs. Mathematically, Real Madrid can still win the league even if they lost this game, but to guarantee it they have to win the remaining four games of the league. With relegation and European spot dogfight being very intense nearing the end of the season, there is a big possibility that it won’t be easy for Mourinho’s men. With the second leg of Champions League semi-final looming in a few days for both the clubs, Guardiola and Mourinho’s leadership and management skills are under arduous test.
Karanka announced that Real Madrid intends to attack at Camp Nou, and this leaves us wondering if this is another attempt from Madrid to impose their will on Barcelona. Barcelona and Guardiola are never one to shirk from pressure, always consistently exercising their own philosophy so this move from Real Madrid is baffling. The statement is even more absurd because it is Real Madrid who will emerge as the happier side if the match ended in a draw. If Barcelona wins the match, they will end up with 84 points, only a point behind Madrid with 85 points. But Barcelona are psychologically at an advantage.
Mourinho will most likely adopt a trivote or a three defensive midfielder approach because this will have at least two advantages for them. First, it will tactically nullify Messi from a goalscoring viewpoint and force him to be a ball feeder from midfield just as in previous El Clásico and the midweek game against Chelsea. Second, this will give them the opportunity to rest both Ozil and Kaka, who will remain fresh for the second leg of Champions League in three days. But if Barcelona scores more than one goal, they may decide to substitute one of the defensive midfielders for a more creative one. It’s very hard to imagine Mourinho will decide to play openly tomorrow just because they almost succeeded doing so in the ending minutes of Copa del Rey quarter-finals against Barcelona in January.
Guardiola on the other hand will keep everyone guessing on the starting line-up and formation for the game. This is good, as deception is one of the key factors to beat Real Madrid tomorrow. I think Guardiola will use a flexible back line that can be changed from four to three at will. This is due to the inverted pyramid formation (3-3-4 or 1-2-3-4) that will undoubtedly be used by Guardiola when people are overloading Messi and the midfield with players. This has been used recently to some degree of success, and I believe it will be Guardiola’s gambit for the two upcoming colossal matches.
Besides Messi, the key figure that will play a very important part in unlocking trivote is Busquets, the wingers, and the striker playing along and in front of Messi. Alexis Sanchez has been playing superbly of late, and he was extremely unlucky not to score at Stamford Bridge in midweek. If he’s fit, he could provide relentless off-the ball movement that has worked several times this season when facing stubborn defenses. But alas, the latest news on him says that he won’t cut it for tomorrow’s match.
With Alexis not playing, surely the next person in line to help the team score some goals is Pedro. Pedro has been rested in midweek, so he is more than ready to score on Casillas’ goal once again. He shouldn’t play to keep Barca’s width but provide movement off the ball that will open some channels for other players to exploit. Pedro’s work-rate, agility, and natural finish will be something to relish for as Real Madrid will no doubt screen Messi with the three defensive midfielders.
To keep Barca’s width and keep Barcelona’s attack from being one-dimensional, wingers are of utmost importance. Cuenca is the best winger we have currently and he should be employed at left wing instead of Iniesta. The right wing will be filled by Dani Alves when the formation shifts to 3-3-4. Therefore, we have Messi-Pedro-Cuenca for 4-3-3 and Alves as the right wing for 3-3-4.
The midfield will have Busquets and Iniesta. One other spot can be filled by Xavi or Fabregas. In wake of the injury that plagued the natural goalscorers of Barcelona this season (Villa and Pedro), Fàbregas and Xavi has been taking turns doing some late runs or llegada and have scored more than the other forwards except for Messi. Pep will definitely consider the midweek fixture to make the decision. It’s likely that Xavi will play tomorrow because he’s been performing very well in El Clásicos, meanwhile Fàbregas will be rested so that he’ll be fit for the Chelsea match as he has more experience playing against Chelsea.
Four-man defense will consist of Mascherano, Pique, Puyol, and Alves with Puyol as the left back. Alves can seamlessly go forward to make the formation 3-3-4 when needed and the directness of Adriano will not be of much use as Cuenca will be hugging the line. Ronaldo and Di Maria are also likely to vacate their winger positions and they need to be marked by experienced defenders instead of Adriano. With zero margin of error, this will be Pep’s best bet to ensure safety.
Unlucky to have been beaten in London, Messi and co. will seek redemption in La Liga. It’s the only way to go, or as Sun Tzu would have said, Barcelona is now on desperate ground. The only way is to fight and to win.
|FC Barcelona||3 – 1||AC Milan|
|R. Zaragoza||1 – 4||FC Barcelona|
|FC Barcelona||4 – 0||Getafe|
|Levante||1 – 2||FC Barcelona|
|Chelsea||1 – 0||FC Barcelona|
Villa, Fontas, and Abidal continue to be on the long-term absentee list, meanwhile Afellay has been given the clearance to play after being out for six months. Alexis is the latest one said to be unavailable after picking up a knock after clashing with John Terry midweek.
Predicted Starting XI: Valdes – Puyol – Mascherano – Pique – Dani Alves – Busquets – Iniesta – Xavi – Messi – Cuenca – Pedro
Having one more day of rest, Real Madrid will do everything to avoid losing to ensure winning La Liga. However, they also have the Champions League semis on their mind just like Barcelona.
|Real Madrid||5 – 2||APOEL Nicosia|
|Real Madrid||0 – 0||Valencia|
|Atl. Madrid||1 – 4||Real Madrid|
|Real Madrid||3 – 1||Sp. Gijon|
|B Munchen||2 – 1||Real Madrid|
Predicted Starting XI: Casillas – Carvalho – Ramos – Arbeloa – Marcelo – Pepe – X. Alonso – Khedira – Di Maria – Ronaldo – Benzema
Everybody is still match fit for Real Madrid, and nobody is on disciplinary sanction.
Even though billed as a battle between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, it will be much bigger than that. The team with less mistakes will prevail which means both managers must be reactive to events unfolding in the field. Expect Real Madrid to defend deep and waiting for counter attacks, meanwhile Barca will create chances. If Barca can convert the chances to goals, there can only be one outcome: A win for the home team.
FC Barcelona 3 – 1 Real Madrid
Image credit: Diver & Aguilar