With both Barcelona and Real Madrid having their share of problems, this El Clasico will be one that nobody walks in to as the clear favorite. Let’s see how we can visit the game from many angles after the jump.
Problems at the back
Looking at that heading, it is forgivable that you’d think that we are talking about FC Barcelona. After all, isn’t it Barça who is going into the game with no natural and experienced centre back? While Barça is having a mini crisis at the back, Real Madrid and Mourinho are also experiencing a big problem: discontent in the dressing room. Sergio Ramos was dropped at the beginning of the month and Varane was put to a trial by fire and the results have been mixed. His mistakes led to a lot of poor goals, such as the one Deportivo scored when Real Madrid won but played poorly.
Ramos finally gave an apology to the whole squad and Mourinho before the game at Ajax and he was back in the squad. But you can feel that somehow it’s just a temporary ceasefire before an important game like el Clasico. Casillas seemed very reluctant to command their back line, especially if it consists of Pepe (who will most certainly play) and Coentrao; both from the Portuguese clique in the squad. He’d much rather sigh haplessly and not celebrate the win if it was driven by a player from the Portuguese clique.
Mourinho is no stranger to managing dressing room conflicts, but this one takes it to a whole new level. His insistence on getting rid of Kaka at the beginning of the season made the squad unhappy, as Kaka’s inclusion in the starting eleven brought victories to Real Madrid. For this match, I really think that he will flex his managerial muscle and prove to the squad that he knows what it takes to bring them to victory. He will field his own starting eleven and try to end the conflicts that way.
Meanwhile, Barcelona is certainly playing with fire if they start Pique this Sunday. He will not be the answer to Barcelona’s problem. Once Tito is set on playing Song, then he will have to continue helping Song establish himself in that position.
Song’s strength lies in his willingness to go shoulder to shoulder, mostly coming out as winner, and his calmness in possession. But Song shares a liability with Mascherano that can’t be overlooked: inability to close passing lanes and lack of pace.
Both Real Madrid and FC Barcelona conceded 5 goals this season and Barcelona’s never die attitude and resolve has made all the difference. Barcelona has scored 5 goals more than Real Madrid and that was the difference between the 1 draw and 2 losses that Real Madrid had compared with our 3 victories.
It might come as a surprise to some cules that we are more lethal this season than Real Madrid. With Messi scoring 10 goals in 10 official games, other players have come out to help Barcelona get results. This has been the most positive part of Tito’s side this season.
Nevertheless, we must consider Ronaldo’s excellent form coming into this match and in recent games against FC Barcelona. He has scored consecutively in 5 recent Clasicos and will be the first player to score in 6 Clasicos in a row if he scores this Sunday.
Barcelona’s starting eleven
In each part of the starting eleven, Tito Vilanova will have a certain starters locked in. In the goalkeeper post, the improving Victor Valdes will get the nod. His heroics in Lisbon will be a huge boost to his confidence. In defense, the quick Jordi Alba, uncompromising Mascherano, and the lively Dani Alves will almost certainly be starting. The other spot is likely to be given to Alex Song. Montoya didn’t do well against Cristiano Ronaldo the last time, and neither did Adriano, who will feature at left back only if Alba is injured. Pique is not ready to play and won’t feature.
With Iniesta only starting to recover and get minutes in Lisbon, he should not be starting this Sunday as things might get a little rough. Busquets, Xavi, and Fabregas will be Tito’s best bet. Tito will play Iniesta when the game has changed, be it from Madrid sitting back to protect a lead or Barcelona seeking to control possession to protect its lead.
In front, Messi and Pedro will be a lock. Why Pedro? Because he has scored often in this fixture. He is very dependable in big matches because he likes to run into channels that will be created by the Real Madrid defenders. This Sunday, Real Madrid won’t park the bus as they need a win to cut Barcelona’s lead to 5 points. This will mean Real Madrid will play with 4 defenders, creating a lot of running channels which is Pedro’s best game.
Will the other spot be given to Alexis, David Villa, or Tello then? Alexis edges it slightly here for his goal in Lisbon, but most importantly because he also flourishes against a back four. David Villa or Tello will be used as an impact substitute and we can hope that Tito will never have to be desperate enough to use all of them.
High defensive line
If there was one glaring error from Tito’s tactics in the previous El Clasico at the Bernabeu, it was the suicidal high defensive line. With Dani Alves unavailable and Adriano playing as right back, the line was employed too high. Pique and Mascherano couldn’t cope with Real Madrid’s offense and it was very flattering to Barcelona that it only conceded two goals.
Mascherano and Song are not the greatest readers of the game, and with Mascherano often making mistakes when having to deal with lobbed through balls, it is best if Barcelona take a very conservative approach to the game.
The other fixture that nobody talks about
Should Barcelona lose, there is a team in Madrid that will take advantage to claim the coveted no. 1 spot. No, it won’t be Real Madrid. It will be Atletico who will host Malaga, the third team in the league. Should Atletico win and Barcelona lose, it will be the first time in years that Atletico is positioned at the peak of the La Liga table.
In conclusion, el Clasico will be worth three points like any other match and should Real Madrid win, they will cut the difference in points to 5 with Barcelona. Pique’s and Iniesta’s recoveries should not be put in jeopardy just for this match. Real Madrid will not overtake Barcelona in the table anytime soon, so cules should be looking at whatever the result may be from a wider perspective.
Pique and Iniesta are recovering from injury, while Muniesa is still recovering from the surgery. Puyol is out for 8 weeks from a dislocated elbow.
Predicted Starting XI: Valdés; Alves, Mascherano, Song, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Fàbregas; Pedro, Messi, Alexis
Real Madrid CF
Real Madrid will play for a win, as it will help revive team spirit.
Predicted Starting XI: Casillas; Arbeloa, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo; Khedira, Alonso, Ozil; Di Maria, Ronaldo, Benzema
FC Barcelona 2-2 Real Madrid CF