There was once a time, not so long ago, when Barça and Madrid seemed to play each other every other week, and Barça nearly always seemed to get the better of things. However, it is now more than seven months since the last Clásico and Barça haven’t beaten Madrid since the 3-2 victory in the Supercopa first leg in August 2012. In fact Barça have only won one of the last eight games between the two great rivals but with both clubs introducing new first-team coaches this summer, the desire to see how Tata Martino’s Barça get on against Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid gives tomorrow’s clash an even greater attraction.
The Barça players will train at 7 pm this evening and Martino will then name the squad for the game. The group will then spend the night concentrated at the Hotel Princesa Sofia to prepare for the game. Given the early 6 pm kick there will be no morning training session before the game. This evening all eyes will be on Gerard Piqué to see if he has recovered sufficiently after missing training on Wednesday and Thursday. The bad news is that Johnathan dos Santos broke down in training on Wednesday and he will now need surgery on the knee ligament injury which will see him sidelined for six months.
In the 1-1 draw at Milan Martino played what many considered to be his strongest possible XI. Given his previous policy of rotations it will be interesting to see if he decides to repeat his once de gala. He has options and he may of course be forced to leave out Piqué, but whether Piqué is declared fit to play or not there is a strong case to include Carles Puyol in the team for his leadership qualities. In some matches this season Barça have failed to match the intensity of the opponent and Puyol helps to keep everybody on their toes.
Cesc Fabregas is another who could provide an alternative to Tuesday’s starting XI. Of course he could come in for either Xavi or Iniesta in midfield or he could be used again as a false nine which would see Messi starting on the right. Martino has occasionally restored Messi to his old role of coming in from the wing, and if Madrid’s midfield line plays as close to the defence as Milan’s did on Tuesday there may be little room through the middle for the Argentinian to have an effect so he could again move wide in search of space.
It’s more likely, however, that Messi will start in his usual false nine role. He still didn’t look at 100% against Milan but he lasted the 90 minutes and hopefully with four more days’ preparation he will be raring to go tomorrow with the chance to get the one goal he needs to surpass Alfredo Di Stefano record of 18 El Clásico goals. Pedro is the other main option for Martino if he wants to change things around though if Pedro plays it will most likely be a straight swap with Alexis. Whoever plays, Martino will need to decide on tactics, particularly on the role of the full backs and whether they push up or maintain a deeper role to cover the threat from Madrid’s counter-attack.
A week ago the possibility that Ancelotti wouldn’t survive as Madrid’s coach until Christmas was being seriously debated. However, after victories over Malaga and Juventus Ancelotti’s job looks more secure and a victory over Barça tomorrow would see the two sides on level points which would be quite remarkable given how badly Madrid have played at times this season. With everybody available except the injured Xabi Alonso the Italian coach also has options to consider for his team selection. Does he bring in Varane in place of Pepe to partner Sergio Ramos in defence? Does he play a 4-2-3-1 which would give Isco or Bale a better chance to start? Or does he go with a 4-3-3 with a defensive trivote like Mourinho used to do? The trivote would probably be formed by Khedira, Modric and Illarramendi though Pepe could also be an option if Varane plays in defence. In attack it seems pretty certain that Ancelotti will start with the in-form Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo, but whether or not Benzema continues as the centre-forward remains to be seen. Benzema has been highly criticised by his own fans for his recent performances and there seems a lot of support for Álvaro Morata to start three days after his 21st birthday. The other option would be to move Ronaldo to centre-forward and start with Di Maria and Bale on the wings.
The importance of tomorrow’s game cannot be underestimated. A win for Barça would establish a six-point advantage over Madrid which despite the number of games remaining would be a very big blow to Madrid’s title chances. However, a draw would be encouraging for Ancelotti’s men while a win would give Madrid a massive boost while leaving Barça as the ones with problems and doubts.
I don’t mind admitting I am hungry for a win over The Evil Empire. Madrid don’t look too well organised this season and they tend to allow too many chances to the other team. On the other hand they have a blistering counter-attack and I’m sure Ronaldo and Di Maria will cause us some problems. However, it is Neymar’s first Clásico, which will be a big test for the 21-year-old, but I have a feeling it could be his big day tomorrow and he’ll be decisive in a narrow Barça victory.
And in case you haven’t seen it yet, make sure you read the Barçacentral exclusive interview with Ray Hudson posted earlier today.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Adriano; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Neymar.
Madrid: Diego Lopez; Arbeloa, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo; Khedira, Modric, Illarramendi; Di Maria, Benzema, Ronaldo.
Prediction: Barça 3 Real Madrid 2
Date: Saturday 26 October 2013. Kick off 6 pm local time.