Tata Martino has named 21 players for tomorrow’s must-win game against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu. Gerard Piqué returns but Carles Puyol has still not fully recovered so he remains in Barcelona along with the other injured players, Isaac Cuenca and Johnathan dos Santos, and the discarded keeper Oier Olazábal. Martino seems likely to start with an XI of Valdés, Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba, Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas, Neymar, Messi and Iniesta while Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti confirmed today that he will stick with the same team that he has used in recent weeks which means a Madrid XI of Diego Lopez, Carvajal, Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Modric, Xabi Alonso, Di Maria, Bale, Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Barça must see this game as an excellent opportunity to get back into the title race. A victory will reduce Madrid’s advantage to just one point and with nine games still to play there is a reasonable chance that more points will be dropped before the end of the season. We have to give it our best shot and go out with the belief that if we play as we can, we still have the better team.
Yes, Madrid are looking very strong at the moment. Yes, they haven’t lost since Neymar and Alexis scored to beat them 2-1 at Camp Nou back in October. And yes, their record in 2014 impressively reads 17 wins, 2 draws and 0 defeats with 48 goals scored and only 7 conceded. After the Camp Nou game Barça went six points clear of Madrid and Ancelotti’s position looked to be in jeopardy, but the Italian has turned things around, taking advantage of Sami Khedira’s injury to invent a midfield trio of Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric and Angel Di Maria which has proved very effective.
However, there are weaknesses in Madrid’s structure that Barça can exploit. The front three of Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale may work at pressing but they do not like to drop back and support the midfield. If Barça can find a good rhythm and maintain a high-tempo passing game we may discover that Modric and Di Maria are not too happy when they have to chase the ball. Barça’s full-backs will, of course, need to be wary of Madrid’s counter attack but they could take advantage of Ronaldo and Bale’s reluctance to backtrack. Jordi Alba, in particular, could prove vital going forward, especially if Iniesta is pulling right-back Carvajal out of position.
Form may be on Madrid’s side tomorrow but recent history offers hope for Barça with the Blaugrana winning on five of the last ten visits to the Bernabéu. Another encouraging statistic is that Ancelotti has not beaten Barça as a coach since 2004.
Barça arrive to the game on the back of two consecutive away league defeats which hadn’t occurred since Frank Rijkaard’s time in charge. The disorganization at Real Sociedad and the lack of intensity at Valladolid will need to be corrected, though it seems unlikely that Tata can get it as wrong as in San Sebastian again while the intensity will surely not be lacking for such a big challenge.
For Victor Valdés the game will be particularly special as unless Barça meet Madrid in the Champions League semi-final or Pinto gets injured for the Copa del Rey final, this will be the last of his 28 Clásicos. From the previous 27 encounters Valdés has conceded 38 goals with an impressive record of 13 wins (6 at the Bernabéu), 6 draws and 8 defeats. I can only recall one mistake at the Bernabéu, for Benzema’s early goal in Barça’s 1-3 win in December 2011, though I can also remember goalkeeping heroics especially in Valdés first away win at the Bernabéu (1-2 in 2004) and also in the 0-2 victory in 2010.
It could also be a special occasion for Leo Messi. The Argentinian has scored a total of 18 goals against Madrid (9 at the Bernabéu) and one more would take him past Alfredo Di Stefano to be the top scorer ever in Clásicos. A goal from Messi would also take him past Hugo Sanchez and into second place in the table of all-time goals scored in La Liga. Messi and Sanchez both have 234 league goals to their names at the moment with only Telmo Zarra, who scored 252 in 278 games for Athletic Club between 1940 and 1955, with more.
Tomorrow’s game takes on even more importance as both teams can still finish the season with a treble, though according to the bookies Madrid have a better chance – at around 10/1 – than Barça whose chances of winning all three remaining trophies is now quoted at around 43/1. For either club a negative result tomorrow may have a psychological effect on how the remainder of the season pans out. It’s not often that Barça visit the Bernabéu so in need of all three points. I’m going for a narrow 0-1 victory with key performances from Valdés, Iniesta and Messi.
Madrid’s 20-man squad list: Iker Casillas, Diego López, Jesús Fernández, Carvajal, Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Varane, Nacho Fernández, Marcelo, Coentrao, Xabi Alonso, Illarramendi, Casemiro, Modric, Isco, Di María, Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema, Morata.
Barça’s 21-man squad list: Valdés, Pinto, Alves, Montoya, Piqué, Bartra, Mascherano, Adriano, Alba, Song, Busquets, Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Fabregas, Iniesta, Alexis, Pedro, Messi, Neymar, Tello, Afellay.
Madrid: Diego Lopez, Carvajal, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo; Modric, Alonso, Di Maria; Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba, Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Neymar, Messi, Iniesta.
Prediction: Madrid 0 Barça 1
Date: Sunday 23 March 2014. Kick-off 9 pm local time.