There is a fair chance that Sunday’s Clásico at the Bernabéu will play an important part in the outcome of the 2013/14 Liga. A win for Barça would leave the title race wide open with just nine games to play but a draw or defeat would leave few possibilities for a Blaugrana recovery. Tata Martino seems likely to restore Cesc Fabregas to the starting XI which would see Andrés Iniesta employed again wide on the left. This would leave just one place in the team for one of three forwards: the in-form Alexis and Pedro and record signing Neymar. The local newspapers seem to believe Martino has already decided on the Brazilian though one has to wonder how they would know one way or another as the coach is unlikely to be sharing his plans with journalists. It is a big decision for Martino to make, so who should he choose?
When Barça met Madrid at Camp Nou back in October I was unusually accurate in my match preview, predicting “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.” The Brazilian proved me right that day by opening the scoring in Barça’s 2-1 win.
There are reasons to support Neymar starting on Sunday. He has more natural ability than Alexis and Pedro and he proved in October that he can cause the Madrid defence plenty of problems. Most importantly, Neymar is a special player and if the game is tight, which it is likely to be, he could provide that unexpected moment of magic to make the difference.
Unfortunately, his recent run of form has been very disappointing and he was particularly poor in the last two away league games which ended in defeat to Real Sociedad and Valladolid. This might be a result of the pressure caused by all the fallout surrounding his transfer, or it could have been due to the fact that he recently returned from injury and he may just need a few games to get back to 100%.
Whatever the case, there is little doubt that both Pedro and Alexis are in better form than our star signing and the team has been performing better in games without the Brazilian (Real Sociedad in the cup, Rayo, City away, Osasuna) than with him (Real Sociedad in the league, Almeria, Valladolid, City home). Polls run in both El Sport and El Mundo Deportivo show the fans clearly prefer Pedro to start on Sunday.
On form, both Pedro and Alexis deserve it more. They have both scored more goals than Neymar while demonstrating that an intelligent run into space can be more effective than an exciting dribble. There is also the impression that Pedro and Alexis are more aggressive in their pressing and they will probably do a better job of defending Marcelo’s attacking runs. On top of this, Neymar is not so used to playing on the right wing which will be expected if Iniesta plays on the left, while Pedro and Alexis have both had experience of the Bernabéu and have both scored there.
As I said earlier, there is a case to play Neymar, though for me it would be taking a big risk and might even cause dressing room resentment. I’ve heard two other arguments for starting with Neymar though for me they lack weight. One is that we need to give the Brazilian every chance to get back to form as we will need him at his best for the final stage of the season. This is all very well but this game is far too important for such indulgences. We need the result on Sunday and we need to put out the best team possible for the task. Any other criteria such as getting a player back to full fitness or boosting his confidence must be secondary. The other argument is that after paying so much money for the Brazilian we will look pretty silly if we don’t use him for such an important game. All I can say to this is you will most likely end up looking even sillier if you base team selection on such an absurd basis.
Coaches may occasionally need to give a certain player special treatment. Any good man-manager understands that individuals may respond differently to a different stimulus and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, this is no time for favours as the three points are so vital. I’m convinced that the best chance for victory on Sunday is with Pedro or Alexis. All I can hope is that if Neymar is picked to start on Sunday he proves me as wrong as he proved me right back in October.
If I were Martino my line-up for the Bernabéu would be: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Pedro, Messi, Iniesta. What about you guys? What XI would you pick?