“It’s our last chance.”And with that, Gerardo Martino said all that has to be said. Real Madrid lead FC Barcelona by four points with ten games remaining in the season. This is the Real Madrid that have not tasted defeat since October 2013 at Camp Nou. This is the Real Madrid who in 2014 have scored 48 goals in 19 matches, winning 17 and drawing twice, whilst only conceding seven. Plain and simple, FC Barcelona have what one calls a tall order at the Santiago Bernabéu.
Carlo Ancelotti has adapted Real Madrid’s formation to a 4-3-3 and since then the club has been flying. Luka Modric has shined in the midfield, and despite being unhappy for much of the season, Ángel Di María is thriving in his new role in the midfield trio. The threesome is rounded off by Xabi Alonso’s effective simplicity. He will once again tomorrow foul excessively and bamboozle referees into leniency. Upfront, it’s Gareth Bale, a revived Karim Benzema and, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Now, tactically, tomorrow will see two 4-3-3s duke it out. What will be especially important is control of the ball and midfield. Where Barça have outmatched Real Madrid in recent years is with possession and pinning them back, something they are uncomfortable with. Modric, Di María, Bale and Ronaldo are all terrific footballers, but they are not known for their defensive talent and discipline. This is an area Barça must test. The main threat for Martino is the counter-attacking speed from the wings, to which Alves and Alba must be ultra aware. If Jordi Alba can put in another shift like versus Manchester City, racing out to pinch balls before danger begins to brew, Barça will be better for it.
Don’t be shocked to see Andrés Iniesta and Cesc Fàbregas together from the start, creating an extra man in the midfield to hold the ball, and to diffuse Madrid counter attacks. That would sacrifice Pedro Rodríguez, Alexis Sánchez or Neymar, with the latter two especially; the pressing game would be less effective. It’s a trade-off, but one that has served Tata well.
Real Madrid’s major absentee is club product Jesé. Partisanship aside, it’s a sad blow for a player exploding on to the scene, who had a very real chance of joining Spain in Brazi,l when at the start of the season that would have seemed impossible. How that helps Barcelona is that Jesé was Carlo’s go-to impact man, but hey, they can always just bring on Isco. No need to predict the starting line-up, Ancelotti confirmed it today.
Starting XI: Diego López, Carvajal, Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Modric, Xabi Alonso, Di María, Bale, Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo
Match Squad (20): Iker Casillas, Diego López, Jesús Fernández, Carvajal, Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Varane, Nacho Fernández, Marcelo, Coentrão, Xabi Alonso, Illarramendi, Casemiro, Modric, Isco, Di María, Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema, Morata
El capità Carles Puyol is not fit for the match, doesn’t make the squad, and just like that, may never play at the Bernabeú again. No worries Puyi, you’ve done so many great things there, it’s time for the next crop to emulate your spirit and make you proud. The other absentees are inconsequential for tomorrow’s battle.
To Ney, or not to Ney, that will be one of Tata’s principal questions. Neymar was terrific at the Camp Nou, but his form hasn’t been ideal in recent weeks, leaving one to question the toll all the off-the-pitch drama has taken, as well as his injury some months back. I don’t question for a moment Neymar’s future potential, but for tomorrow, a role off the bench may serve best.
Predicted Starting XI: Valdés, Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba, Xavi, Busquets, Fàbregas, Alexis, Messi, Iniesta
Match Squad (21): Valdés, Pinto, Alves, Montoya, Piqué, Bartra, Mascherano, Adriano, Alba, Song, Busquets, Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Fàbregas, Iniesta, Alexis, Pedro, Messi, Neymar, Tello, Afellay
Barça always play to win, that’s said from the president to the directors, down to the manager and the players tasked to execute a plan. But there is a massive difference between always playing to win and needing to win. In seasons past when Barça went into this fixture with a five point, seven point, even 12 point lead, they stepped onto the pitch to win, but if the match was progressing towards a draw, that was just fine. That’s not the case tomorrow. Barça cannot rely on Madrid slipping up, their 2014 form indicates it won’t happen. Barça must put as much destiny in their hands as possible, reduce the gap to one, and let the merengues feel the blaugrana’s hot, fiery breath on the back of their necks. Because as Tata said, tomorrow really could be the last chance.