Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid
3 March, 15:00 GMT
They are dime a dozen nowadays. The El Clasicos, that is. Well, almost! These two teams have risen to such nauseating heights that the rest of the teams, despite doing quite well are termed nothing but mediocre. An Athletic Bilbao can skin a Manchester United at the Old Trafford and an Atletico Madrid can maul a Chelsea at will – still they don’t even aspire to touch the top two in Spain. FC Barcelona and Real Madrid have perhaps redefined rivalry. While Barcelona had been untouchable by the illustrious rivals for quite some time, things have changed in the absence of Tito Vilanova. Not taking away credit from Real Madrid, but the recent Clasico outing made the Vilanovaless-Barca look worse, than they actually are.
Jose Mourinho, perhaps in his last season at the Bernabeu, has accumulated a host of superstars to rival FC Barcelona and has been quite successful at that. Their recently exploits at the Camp Nou have not only been extolled by almost every school of football, but some have also gone on to say that it is perhaps the end of an era for the Barcelona style of football. It actually seems likely. The lack of a natural goalscorer beside Lionel Messi has come to the fore and perhaps David Villa should be pushed more into the scheme of things by the Barca think-tank. More importantly, the passing game has been read. And a tall striker, a la Ibrahimovic, but with more mobility and less arrogance, might just be the need of the hour. Or maybe it’s time to acquire to fill in the void left by Eto’o.
Real Madrid on the other hand has had problems with their defense and goalkeeper. With Iker Casillas dropped and then injured, Mourinho’s apparent faith on Adan vanished in thin air and the club jumped into the market to bring in outcast Diego Lopez. Albeit, Lopez has put in some great performances in the Clasicos, one may still wonder as to what exactly happened to the faith Jose usually had on Adan or was it just a publicity stunt to establish himself as the absolute boss at the Bernabeu?
Team News & Tactics
With a heavy duty clash against Manchester United looming large, Jose Mourinho might just seek to field a team which won’t go out all guns blazing because quite simply, the league’s lost. This might just give them the pretext to justify, should the result go the other way. However, Clasicos are never inconsequential and this one isn’t going to be one, either. Angel Di Maria, Barca’s tormentor-in-chief will not be available for this game because of a red-card and Iker Casillas is recuperating from a finger injury. Nonetheless, this doesn’t render Madrid weak. On the contrary they are at the top of their game at present. Solid in defense. Clinical in attack. And with the Champions League game coming up next week, the timing to peak couldn’t have been better.
With a 4-2-3-1, Real Madrid, the space between the midfield and defense will have Sami Khedira pressing and with Xavi most probably
unavailable, Cesc Fabregas is likely to start and should be dealt with like in the previous match. Now that Xabi will possibly not have to press Xavi, he will have more freedom to spray his long and diagonal passes and give Madrid more chance to attack Barca on the break. Ramos is again expected to man-mark Messi but this time, the added threat of David Villa should be there right from the beginning, which might not allow Varane to operate freely at the back. However, there is a huge possibility that Jose Mourinho might rest all key members, including Ramos, Varane, Alonso, Khedira, et al. In such a scenario, the idea would be to destroy midfield possession and sit back and defend.
Real will miss Di Maria the most. His pace is a huge asset against a central-defensive pair as slow as Puyol and Pique and even Mascherano. But in Callejon, Real Madrid should have an able replacement, if not equally competent. Ronaldo is expected to start and continue his astounding form against Barcelona. Kaka might just get a rare start and that should be a headache for Barca – having not seen him for ages, he will be only too unpredictable and that might cause the damage.
Real Madrid Probable Starting Line-up (4-2-3-1): Lopez(GK); Arbeloa, Varane, Ramos, Marcelo; Essien, Modric; Callejon, Kaka, Ronaldo; Benzema.
With the domestic campaign just disrupted, the Catalan side will be looking forward to make amends. However, in their quest to regain prestige, the possibility of missing Xavi, will be a huge blow. It goes without saying that the midfielder brings about calmness in the midfield and is adept in holding the ball. Cesc Fabregas, who would otherwise have found himself on the bench, might just get another opportunity to redeem himself in a big match. Xavi had a muscle-tear in the match against Valencia, earlier in February. He recovered in time for the clash against Milan, but that tear appeared in training last Sunday, and after aggravating that in midweek, he is most likely to miss the match at Bernabeu. However, he should be available for next week’s match against Deportivo and the crucial second leg of the Milan tie.
David Villa should return and fans can expect to see the MVP triumvirate against Madrid. The addition of Villa will take off some of the goal-scoring burden from Leo and should enable him to play more freely. With one goal shy of being the top-scorer in El Clasicos, Leo certainly seems likely to add to the feathers on his cap. Jose Mourinho’s sides have traditionally found a way to stop Lionel and this match should be no exception. In a match like this, perhaps a player like Ibrahim Afellay would come handy. Fans surely won’t forget how the Dutchman skinned Marcelo, one of the faster players on the pitch, to set up Leo to score. Unfortunately, he isn’t there now and it will be a bit too much to expect the same off Sanchez, who clearly has not been as impactful as expected.
Ronaldo’s battle with Alves has been a key aspect of the last series of Clasicos and this match shouldn’t be any exception. However, the wider Alves moves out, the more Pedro tends to move in and his slight built against Real’s gigantic central defenders plays to their advantage. Roura needs to take note of these issues. Cesc Fabregas seems to be in a limbo yet again. His form has been largely indifferent, with patches of brilliance in between. This is one match, where he can make a mark and answer his critics. There is little doubt about his quality, but his temperament to play matches as big as these have come under the scanner.
FC Barcelona Probable Starting Line-up (4-3-3): Valdes; Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba; Fabregas, Busquets, Iniesta; Villa, Messi, Pedro.
1. Lionel Messi has 17 goals in El Clasicos and is just one away from equalling Alfredo Di Stéfano’s haul of 18.
2. It’s been 12 matches in a row that Barcelona hasn’t had a clean-sheet.
3. Real Madrid are undefeated in their last 24 home matches in La Liga.
Players To Watch Out For
Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)
After a stunning display in the midweek game, Ronaldo will be eager to continue his stunning form against Barcelona. And in a match of little importance, he can be expected to ignite the spark. Expect yet another brilliant outing from the Portuguese star.
Lionel Messi (FC Barcelona)
Recovering from a fever, Leo might not be in the best of form, physically and mentally. The recent defeats against Milan and Madrid, where he was rendered useless, are bound to take a toll on the Argentine. However, it still will be foolish to rule him out and Real’s best players can be expected to mark the Barcelona ace.
Real Madrid 2 – 1 FC Barcelona
This isn’t the right time for Barca to take on Madrid at the Bernabeu. With Vilanova away, Roura is simply too naive to take on a wily Mourinho. The Portuguese manager, who still reels at being called the “Translator” by Barca fans, has a perennial vendetta against his former employers and will use his tactical acumen to the fullest to cut down the deficit to 13.