Messi versus Ronaldo. Tito versus Mourinho. Cantera versus cartera. Champion versus champion.
A spectacle as mouth watering as El Clásico seems to be something so special, so profoundly perfect in its inherent excitement that it would seem an illusion to occur more than once in a blue moon.
But here we are. Cules, Madridistas. Chewing our finger nails to nubs. After 250 titanic encounters, the electricity remains.
Tito Vilanova probably had an inkling roughly a year ago after the now infamous eye poke that it wouldn’t take much to see himself going head to head with his assailant as head coach of arguably the greatest club side the world has ever seen. As the youth and hair began fading from Pep Guardiola’s cranium, Tito likely eventually realized it would be him making the final call on whether to put Gerard Pique in central defense or Javier Mascherano. It would be the humble assistant who would soon be deciding how to counter the menacing Cristiano Ronaldo and how to deploy Xavi and Andres Iniesta. And it would soon be Tito on the sidelines watching with no control whatsoever as Lionel Messi created another magical example of what it means to be the greatest player in history.
Despite Guardiola’s absence, there should be no question as to the effectiveness of most positions being comfortably filled. Question marks remain as to David Villa’s fitness, though his goal against Real Sociedad indicates El Guaje’s road to recovery ends soon. Cristian Tello’s massively disappointing performance in the last encounter between Barca and Real probably means he will see action as an impact sub if any. Pedro! and Alexis Sanchez are likely the two wingers who will accompany Messi in attack.
Controlling Mesut Ozil will likely be left up to Sergio Busquets as there is simply no one better suited for the job, especially not new signing Alex Song. Overlapping and linking up with Iniesta on the left will probably be the lightning quick Jordi Alba. Putting in an impressive showing at the weekend, Alba will need to create as much trouble as possible for the Madrid back line as his right sided counter part Daniel Alves will likely be pinned back helping captain caveman Carles Puyol take care of Ronaldo.
In the center of defense is where another question mark remains. Does Tito go with the aerial and mental presence of Pique or the speed and tackling ability of Mascherano?
Xavi must and will start.
With momentum stunted for Madrid following its 1-1 draw against Valencia at the weekend, Barcelona has the capacity to deliver a massive psychological blow–one that could effectively shape the rest of the season for both teams.
Mourinho and Vilanova have done minimal tinkering with their sides and despite the possible departures of some excess Blancos baggage, namely Kaka, Nuri Sahin and Ricardo Carvalho, this still appears to be the toughest Madrid side Barcelona has ever faced. Fortunately for Messi and any other blaugrana who appreciates his legs, Pepe is out recovering from a concussion sustained against Valencia, or against Iker Casillas, depending on how you look at it.
Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria and Karim Benzema will certainly be looking to give Victor Valdes a tough time. All four will probably be on the pitch at some point today and Valdes’ lack of clean sheets in the last several Clasicos is a troubling symptom of Madrid’s success.
Probable Line Ups
Barcelona: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Alexis, Messi, Pedro!
Real Madrid: Casillas; Arbeloa, Albiol, Ramos, Marcelo; Khedira, Alonso; Di Maria, Ozil, Ronaldo; Benzema
Prediction: Barcelona should deliver and give Tito his first Clasico scalp. Madrid will score first but the magic of Messi and Barcelona’s ball retention will eventually see the blaugrana through to the second leg.
FC Barcelona 2-1 Real Madrid CF
Photo credit: Pedro Armestre/AFP/Getty Images