Since José Mourinho took over at Real Madrid in the summer of 2010 we have already been treated to seven clásicos. Barça have the upper hand with three match victories to Madrid’s one, and that is also reflected in the trophies as Barça have lifted the Champions League, La Liga and the Spanish Supercopa while Madrid have only managed to drop the Copa del Rey under a bus. However, going into tomorrow’s league clash at the Bernabeu Madrid look more prepared than ever to challenge Barça’s hegemony. Barça have just two narrow victories in Granada and Gijon from six away games in the league this season, draws at Real Sociedad, Valencia and Athletic Bilbao and defeat at Getafe is evidence of problems on the road while Madrid’s record run of 15 victories suggest that this could well be the occasion for Madrid to get some revenge for the events of last season.
The 5-0 hiding that Madrid received at Camp Nou in Mourinho’s first clásico left its mark on the Portuguese coach. In the following encounters Madrid played an ultra-defensive formation to counter Barça’s game and during the four matches in April/May this gave our opponents some limited success with the Copa del Rey win in Valencia. However, there was a reaction from the players and some of the press against Mourinho’s tactics as some feel that a club of the stature of Real Madrid should not need to adapt to its opponent’s game especially when playing in the Bernabeu. In the Supercopa in August Madrid played a much more open game but despite doubts over Barça’s fitness they were unable to beat us. Now we are in a much more serious competition and Mourinho will probably be drawn to his more defensive instincts especially given the points advantage.
Pep Guardiola’s many options are discussed in the Talking Barça clásico special as well as in my article Who will play in Barça’s starting XI vs Real Madrid, however, Mourinho also has a few decisions to make. He has everybody except Carvalho available but before he chooses his team probably the most important decision is whether to concede to the player’s desire to go out and take the game to Barça while his instincts will lean towards conceding possession and hitting us with lightning fast counter-attacks. It seems probable that he will play the so-called trivote of Xabi Alonso, Khedira and Lass though Coentrao could also play here if Lass is preferred at right back. Most pundits suggest this means sacrificing Ozil and Kaka leaving Madrid with a front three of Di Maria, Ronaldo and Benzema, though Mourinho’s strange move of playing both Benzema and Higuian in the win at Ajax on Wednesday might suggest he is thinking of playing Di Maria and Ronaldo as Madrid’s most attacking players with Ozil or Kaka used as a link between them and the trivote.
With Adriano fit again, Pep Guardiola has all first team players available apart from Ibi Afellay who continues his recuperation in Holland. Whoever starts for us there are some keys that will be important. First, the first ten minutes are going to be very dangerous and Madrid will probably come out at 100 mph trying to punish us for any hesitancy. If we can weather the early storm we should begin to dictate the rhythm of the game. Second, we must try not to concede corners and free kicks. I’m not so worried about Ronaldo’s shooting ability and hopefully he will waste any central free kicks, but we are vulnerable to crosses as we have so few tall players and Xabi Alonso will have plenty of tall white-shirted targets to aim at. The third key is the obvious: don’t get caught in possession in dangerous positions. In our defeats to Mourinho’s Chelsea and Mourinho’s Inter this is where we were punished and its how he most believes Madrid can beat us, win possession and play the quick vertical pass into space behind our defence and use the speed of his forwards. I have argued against Gerard Piqué’s inclusion in the team but if he plays it is because he brings the ball out of defence better than Puyol and this should lower the risk of losing possession near the back.
While keeping Madrid out we will also be hoping to leave Iker Casillas on his backside again as many times as possible. Leo Messi’s got an impressive seven goals at the Bernabeu and he’ll once more be out to expose the defensive weaknesses of Sergio Ramos. Cesc Fabregas will be trying to get in behind Xabi Alonso and we’ll be looking to use the speed of Alexis or Villa to get behind Madrid’s defence if it pushes up too far. Xavi Hernandez is set to make his 600th appearance for Barça in a stadium where he has had some great games, his performance with four assists included in the 2-6 win in May 2009 should go down as one of the greatest midfield exhibitions in recent history. Who would bet against him getting another assist tomorrow?
It will never ever be easy to go to the Bernabeu and win and this year Madrid are looking stronger than ever. Added to this is the fact that a defeat for Barça will make a comeback in the league so much more complicated. For the first time in more than two years, if I’m not mistaken, Barça go into a game as underdogs. This makes the challenge all the greater. However, the last three years have taught us to believe in Pep Guardiola and this magnificent group of players. Guardiola has still not lost in five visits to the Bernabeu and despite Madrid’s improvement I feel we still have the more talented players and this should be reflected in the scoreline at the end of the 90 minutes. Let’s hope it’s a splendid game and that tomorrow night we will be celebrating another famous victory. Visca El Barça!
Real Madrid: Casillas, Adán, Jesús, Ramos, Varane, Pepe, Marcelo, Albiol, Arbeloa, Coentrão, Kaká, Xabi Alonso, Özil, Sahin, Callejón, Lass, Granero, Khedira, Altintop, Di Maria, Cristiano Ronaldo, Higuaín, Benzema.
Barça: Valdés, Pinto, Oier, Alves, Puyol, Mascherano, Piqué, Fontás, Maxwell, Abidal, Adriano, Busquets, Xavi, Keita, Iniesta, Thiago, Dos Santos, Fabregas, Cuenca, Pedro, Messi, Villa, Alexis.
Possible starting lineups:
Real Madrid: Casillas; Arbeloa, Pepe, S.Ramos, Marcelo; Lass, X.Alonso, Khedira; Di Maria, C.Ronaldo, Benzema.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Mascherano, Puyol, Abidal; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Messi, Cesc, Alexis.
My prediction: Real Madrid 1 Barça 2