Luis Enrique faces his biggest test since taking over in the Camp Nou hot-seat with the first Madrid-Barça Clásico of the 2014/15 season tomorrow evening at the Bernabéu (Saturday 6 pm). The Barça coach has seen his team drop just two points in the first eight league games which means an early four-point advantage over second-placed Madrid though Carlo Ancelotti’s team arrive to the game in extraordinary form with a remarkable 35 goals scored in a run of eight straight wins in all competition.
Luis Enrique has already proved to be an expert at keeping the press guessing his intentions for team selection and the big question tomorrow is whether Luis Suarez will make the starting line-up or begin the game on the bench. Suarez hasn’t played a competitive match since the World Cup and he will surely need a couple of games to find his full rhythm. Lucho may prefer to use Suarez as a substitute and persist with Pedro in the forward line or he could decide to play Xavi as an extra midfielder which would leave more freedom for Rakitic and Iniesta to support Messi and Neymar in attack.
The other big doubt for Luis Enrique is whether Sergio Busquets is in condition to play. Busquets has not been in his best form recently and this week he missed the game with Ajax with a hip injury. The defensive midfielder trained normally today and with Sergi Samper returning to Barça B this weekend there is a good indication that Luis Enrique believes Busquets will be fit. If not then Mascherano will continue after two good performances in midfield though if Busquets plays then the Argentinian could return to the defence at the expense of Gerard Piqué. To resume it seems likely that Bravo, Alves, Alba, Mathieu, Mascherano, Rakitic, Iniesta, Neymar and Messi will all start while one place will go to either Piqué or Busquets and the remaining place will be contested between Xavi, Pedro and Suarez. Adriano, Vermaelen and Douglas will all miss the game with injury and Luis Enriqué will name the squad early tomorrow morning shortly before the Barça expedition takes the plane to the Spanish capital.
Madrid will be without Gareth Bale who scored the winner the last time the teams met in the Copa del Rey final in April, but with Sergio Ramos set to return Ancellotti’s team selection looks easier to predict, although the Madrid coach declared today that there will be a surprise in his starting XI. Somewhat surprisingly Iker Casillas is being preferred over Keylor Navas as Madrid’s keeper and despite the alarming drop in form from Casillas, Ancelotti obviously believes it is worth persevering with the 33-year-old in the hope he can recover his old self. Carvajal will probably return in place of Arbeloa at right-back which means a likely defence of Carvajal-Pepe-Ramos-Marcelo. A midfield four of James, Modric, Kroos and Isco with Ronaldo and Benzema up front is expected though Ancelotti’s ‘surprise’ could be a place for Illarramendi instead of Isco if he wants to bolster his midfield.
Madrid had a shaky start to the season with defeats to Real Sociedad and Atlético but since then they have won eight on the trot including 5-goal hauls against Basel, Elche, Athletic and Levante and a massive 2-8 win at Deportivo. They warmed up for the clásico with a comfortable 0-3 win at Liverpool on Wednesday which leaves them with maximum points in the Champions League. Ronaldo has been in astonishing form, scoring 20 goals in all competitions including 15 in just eight league matches. The Portuguese is undoubtedly the man to stop though Barça shouldn’t forget Benzema who netted a brace at Liverpool and also scored twice in five minutes in last year’s corresponding fixture, or James who is proving to be a useful acquisition after his brilliant World Cup.
That fixture last season, if anybody could possibly forget it, ended in a breathtaking 3-4 win for Barça with Benzema’s double getting trumped by Messi’s hat-trick. That victory was Barça’s fourth in the last six league games at the Bernabéu, a run of games that reads 2-6, 0-2, 1-1, 1-3, 2-1, 3-4 – giving an impressive goal aggregate of 9-17 in Barça’s favour in those games. Messi is back on form and his newly-found understanding with Neymar is provoking havoc in opposition defences with both players scoring in each of Barça’s last five games. A goal from Messi tomorrow will see him equal Telmo Zarra’s all-time Spanish league scoring record of 251 goals but given his excellent record at the Bernabéu where he has scored twelve goals it would not be surprising if he bags two to take the record outright. While culés everywhere will be hoping Messi can take the record on Madrid’s pitch I’m sure all of us would accept waiting a little longer in exchange for the three points tomorrow.
Madrid: Casillas; Carvajal, Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo; James, Modric, Kroos, Isco; Ronaldo, Benzema.
Barça: Bravo; Alves, Mascherano, Mathieu, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Rakitic; Neymar, Messi, Iniesta.
Prediction: Madrid 1 Barça 2
Date: Saturday 25 October 2014. Kick-off 6 pm local time.