Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid
28 April, 2011;  12:15 am, IST


Finally, the time has come. FC Barcelona have almost wrapped up the La Liga, and Real Madrid have been crowned the Copa Del Rey champions. The first two Clasicos decided the two out of three titles up for grabs, and the third but most important title may also be decided in the remaining two. It’s a battle that football fans have been waiting for since the Manita. If the clash between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, undoubtedly the top two clubs in the world currently, was not enough, it’s  also a clash between the top two players and also the top two managers in the world.

Team News and Tactical Brief

Real Madrid

Well, you don’t need to have extraordinary powers to guess that Real Madrid will play counter attacking football and the formation will be a 4-1-2-3. The biggest question is, who will occupy the offensive line? The trio of Ozil, Di Maria and Ronaldo  has created problems for the Barca defense with their pace, movement and creativity. Mesut Ozil was the stand out performer in both the El Clasicos, aided by Ronaldo, as he primarily set up chances to score. Mourinho would love to get an early goal, as Real Madrid tend to play with more confidence after scoring. But, playing with this trio leaves out Madrid without a proper centre-forward, which means that they will have to cover more space to move the ball forward towards the goal, which might enable FC Barcelona’s defense to close down any potential attacks. In such a situation, it will all be down to the pace of the trio to beat their markers and break free, enroute to goal.

Pepe - The Portuguese Monster

Kaka, Higuain, Benzema and Adebayor are all fit, and it’s a happy head-ache for Mourinho in case he decides to throw someone into the mix. Higuain brings pace and gets into great positions, while Benzema is technically strong, can hold onto the ball and cut in from the wings to devastating effect, and more importantly, his finishing is strong. Adebayor offers the option of being strong in the air and the ability to hold up play, while Kaka is expected to feature at some stage of the game in place of the mercurial Ozil. The biggest strength for Real Madrid is its offensive bench strength, as Mourinho can look upto any player depending on Barcelona’s defensive set up and the situation.

The biggest battle will be played out in the mid field. Barcelona has magicians within their ranks, but Mourinho seems to have developed a blue print to stop the Barca midfield. Employing Pepe and Khedira ahead of Xabi Alonso, he cramped the space for the Blaugranas to exploit and pressed them continuously. With Khedira injured and Lass Diarra fit, Jose will start with Lass and Pepe to counter Barcelona’s midfield creativity. Pepe will look to deny time and space to Xavi. With Iniesta’s inclusion looking unlikely, Thiago might get a start; in case this happens, Lass would need to ensure that the promising youngster doesn’t get any time to create a pass. This will cause Messi to drop deeper, away from the box to get the ball. It’s  almost impossible to deny space and time on the ball to the Argentine, but they need to nullify his threat in another way than a simple man marking.

Xabi Alonso will be the key to drive the Madrid midfield, as he needs to find those spaces for his through balls to reach the offensive players. The biggest challenge will be to play without Ricardo Carvalho. The Portuguese defender has been simply sensational for Los Galacticos, and he’s the leader who held the defense together in almost every match. With his suspension, its gets tougher. Mourinho made the mistake of playing a high defensive line once, and would not repeat it. He would sit back with Ramos and Albiol employed to stop the attacks and Arbeloa and Marcelo as full backs. Albiol is not a very good game reader and can make silly mistakes that might cost the game. His silly error, as in the La Liga Clasico where he misjudged and brought down Villa, will be a cause of worry. Albiol and Ramos cannot be trusted to play a perfect offside trap, which is so much necessary in such crucial fixtures. Marcelo will be the key, as he can overlap and provide the necessary impetus in attack, but he leaves a good space behind that can be utilized by Alves and Pedro. His judgement to move forward and backward might just decide the outcome of this match.

Such critical games are decided by the tiny details, and Mourinho will be wary of that. The players cannot afford to make any mistakes, as the success of the season depends on the 180 minutes of football against FC Barcelona.

Expected Starting XI (4-1-2-3): Casillas, Arbeloa, Ramos, Albiol, Marcelo, Lass, Alonso, Pepe, Ozil, Ronaldo, Di Maria

football formations

Probable starting line-ups

FC Barcelona

With the teams preparing for the third Clasico, Pep wouldn’t have expected a worse news than that of Iniesta’s injury. With the squad virtually out of left backs, the choices for Barca are limited to say the least. The team looks jaded and seems to lack the pressing intensity that made oppositions fear them. This might be the fatigue of playing in almost all tournaments, till the very end, for the past three years! As much as their creative play may be, it is their pressing and movement that makes it harder for opponents to cope with. But as the season progressed, the intense pressing has had its effect on the players. With a thin squad, Pep now has very little or no options left.

Andres Iniesta: His absence will surely matter.

With Iniesta’s supposed injury, Thiago could be the possible replacement. However, the youngster lacks the experience and would be extremely vulnerable against the likes of Pepe, Lass and Xabi. Nonetheless, his talent cannot be questioned. It will be interesting to see if Pep will go with a volatile Thiago, or will opt for a more experienced Keita, who also promises defensive stability. But given the stage and what is at stake, the Malian will be the front-runner. Messi was too deep and had no space against Real Madrid in the recent meetings. Villa will probably switch to the centre with Pedro and Messi at the flanks to find space. This will mean a little less creative final third through the centre. But given the tight defensive midfield Jose chooses, this would be the most obvious plan to counter it.

The defense has been a major concern ever since Puyol and Abidal picked up injuries. Puyol looks to be fit to start, but with Adriano and Maxwell out, he will be asked to cover the left side of defense. Mascherano has proved to be a good replacement in defense, although it is not his natural position. With all these injury and an emaciated squad, game control becomes more important. This means a more cautious Barca, with fewer risky play and even more emphasis on possession. Barca’s pressing and movement will decide how effective they will be in their attack. With Xavi in midfield, the visitors will look to dictate play. With the security offered by Valdes, Guardiola can have a breather, as he’ll now have his sweeping-keeper role restored.

Probable Starting XI (4-3-3): Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Puyol, Busquets, Xavi, Keita, Messi, Villa, Pedro


Jose Mourinho (Real Madrid) & Pep Guardiola (FC Barcelona)

Jose Mourinho & Pep Guardiola

Such big games are not won by players alone. This is perhaps the only reason that TheHardTackle has chosen these two iconic managers as the MEN TO WATCH OUT FOR. Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola know it all about winning in big games and also against each other. It’s a tactical battle, which promises to be one of the best this season so far. Every move, every substitution and every detail will be something to look forward to in this intriguing El Clasico. Both the managers know how to motivate their squads and get the best out of them. Real Madrid v FC Barcelona in a UCL semi-final with Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola on the bench –  it  cannot get any bigger than this in the world of football.

TheHardTackle’s PREDICTION

Real Madrid 2-1 FC Barcelona

Predictions in such matches can back fire, but you have to go with Jose Mourinho in a home game in a UCL semifinal.  Real Madrid will be pumped up after their Copa Del Rey victory, and will be out to prove that it was no fluke. FC Barcelona will try to assert their dominance, as always, and will provide everything they have. However, even if they lose, they should be contented with an away goal! Brace yourselves for one helluva football experience.