Another clásico. Another Barça-Madrid. With just five games remaining in La Liga 2011/2012, Camp Nou plays host to leaders Real Madrid who have a four-point advantage over second placed Barça. Both teams have had remarkable seasons but defeats in the Champions League semi-finals this week will have affected both camps and this weekend’s game will be a big test of the teams’ mental toughness as well as their technical ability and physical strength.
Barça’s defeat at Chelsea brought to an end a splendid run of fourteen wins and a draw, but it is the eleven straight wins in La Liga since the defeat at Osasuna in February that has reduced the gap at the top from ten points down to four. Victory over Madrid would leave the difference at just one point which would set up a tremendous finish to this epic battle.
Pep Guardiola has won nine out of his fourteen clàsicos as Barça’s first team coach with just one defeat in last season’s Copa del Rey final. Guardiola could be without Alexis Sanchez who took a knock at Stamford Bridge and was reported to be limping when he got off the plane back from London. Barça are unlikely to reveal any information regarding his fitness so we will just have to wait and see the starting lineup when it is announced. We have seen so many tactical variations this season it is extremely difficult to guess how Barça will start. A back-three or back-four? Proper wingers or not? A true central striker or not? A place for Fabregas, and if so, which role? And should Gerard Piqué return to the team?
Meanwhile, Real Madrid seem to be torn between the attacking instincts of the players and the defensive instincts of coach José Mourinho. Normally, Madrid play a 4-2-3-1 formation but Mourinho has often switched to a more defensive 4-3-3 against strong opposition. Since falling out with Lass Diarra last month Mourinho has failed to find the right player to play a defensive midfield role in the so-called trivote alongside Khedira and Xavi Alonso. Against Bayern Munich Mourinho took off Ozil and brought on Marcelo to play the role, but Marcelo lacks the positional discipline required and he’ll probably return to left back in place of Coentrao who seems to be as popular in the Madrid dressing room as a mangy dog. Without the right player for the trivote Mourinho may stick with 4-2-3-1 with Ozil, Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo supporting Karim Benzema up front, but he will still be haunted by the memories of his first clásico when he went with the 4-2-3-1 and Madrid were thrashed 5-0.
It is quite remarkable that since that match in November 2010 the two teams have met nine times and Mourinho’s team has only won once, while none of the four draws have served Madrid for anything. The tactical duel between Mourinho and Guardiola is fascinating but so far it is the Catalan coach who has had the best of things, it will also be interesting to see how the outcome of this match may affect the future of each coach. The other great personal battle of course is between Leo Messi and Ronaldo. With both players on 41 league goals the race for pichichi this season is hotter than ever but Messi has the better figures overall. In all competitions Ronaldo has a remarkable 53 goals in 49 games but Messi’s tally of 63 in 53 games is quite simply out of this world. In clásicos Ronaldo has now scored five goals in ten games while Messi has now left Iker Casillas with that stupid look on his face thirteen times in sixteen meetings.
But, at the end of the day this isn’t about Messi versus Ronaldo or Pep versus Mou, this is about Football Club Barcelona versus Real Madrid. An immense struggle for football supremacy. El clásico. Bring it on baby!
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Puyol; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Alexis.
Madrid: Casillas; Arbeloa, Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo; Xavi Alonso, Khedira; Di Maria, Ozil, Ronaldo; Benzema.
My prediction: Barça 2 Real Madrid 0
Date: Saturday 21st April. Kick off: 8pm local time