The sixth, and hopefully penultimate, clasico of the season takes place on Saturday night. According to conventional wisdom, this is the game which will see Madrid’s four point lead over Barcelona fall to a solitary one. After this, Barcelona’s remaining games are mere formalities whilst Madrid still have to entertain an inconsistent Sevilla side before going to Bilbao where Bielsa, one of the biggest influences over Guardiola’s career, lies in wait, ready to sabotage Madrid’s title bid.
If that sounds overly dramatic, it’s because it probably is. The popular belief is that Real Madrid will roll into the Camp Nou on Saturday night before rolling over. I simply don’t see it that way.
Proponents of this view will point to Mourinho enjoying just one win in ten as Madrid manager against Barcelona (and that was a win in extra time too they shout). True, but the raw statistics hide much of the story particularly in recent encounters.
From the five games played so far this season, a great deal can be gleaned particularly how the gap between the two sides is narrowing all the time. This is most definitely not the same Real Madrid side who turned up at the Camp Nou on a cold November night in 2010, attempted to go toe to toe with Barcelona and were duly thumped 5-0. Not only have a few of the personnel changed but the mentality of the side has changed also with a further eighteen months under the tutelage of Mourinho.
The Story So Far
Despite the one win in ten games stat which crops up time and time again, it overlooks the fine lines which now exist between the sides. There have been three Barcelona wins and two draws in the meetings so far this season. Madrid arguably produced their best performance against Barcelona under Mourinho in the 2-2 Copa del Rey game when they came from 2-0 down and in all probability, should have won the game had it not been for some profligate finishing.
Real Madrid have adopted a much more attacking mentality in the games this season especially in the aforementioned 2-2 draw at Camp Nou when a number of the Madrid players were keen to play as they normally do. This change in mentality stretches back to a Clasico in 2011 when Ronaldo disobeyed Mourinho’s instructions and attempted to press and attack Barcelona before complaining bitterly about the team strategy afterwards. Ronaldo was subsequently “rested” for the following game but the issue of whether to defend or attack Barcelona resurfaced again this season. Following internal “discussion” Madrid have been much more pro-active against their rivals.
Given the various tweaks and changes which have happened in their meetings thus far, not to mention the huge number of possible permutations in line ups etc, it is both difficult and a little foolish to try and predict the line ups and overall strategy ahead of Saturday.
That is something which I will try to do however!
The Champions League
It was never meant to be like this.
Both Real Madrid and Barcelona losing the opening leg of their respective semi finals? Both delivering sluggish performances when it looked obvious that they were playing within themselves, holding back, not going flat out. Distracted by the impending clasico? Probably.
How will both sides handle the demands of the clasico sandwiched in between the two legs of a Champions League semi final?
Some players will clearly be able to play all three games in a row e.g. Ronaldo, Messi, Pepe, Busquets etc. But what about key players who are more susceptible to injury or are just returning from injury? Can Di Maria play this Saturday and manage his third game in a week? Can Puyol handle three successive games at the age of 34?
Similarly, Alonso continues to look tired. Stats have shown the number of passes he is attempting is dropping and his pass completion rate is also dropping. However, Madrid have been playing a much more direct style lately. Hitting longer and riskier passes adversely affects statistics but can reap rewards by creating more goalscoring chances.
Has the change in Madrid’s style been partly due to Alonso’s fatigue?
It is inconceivable that the exact same eleven from both sides will play these three games therefore some changes from the first leg of the Champions League tie is likely on both sides.
Neither side is assured of qualification for the final of the Champions League. No matter how much they deny it, Guardiola and Mourinho will now be glancing ahead to their respective second legs and how to maximise their team for both games.
The key issue facing Mourinho on Saturday is whether he sticks or twists.
Does he go for his normal 4-2-3-1 formation or does change to a more defensive minded 4-3-3 line up?
The 4-2-3-1 lets Madrid press high and allows Busquets to be marked, preventing him from having time and space. The problem though is that it allows Messi space further up the pitch and requires Khedira and Alonso to work very hard.
The defence more or less takes care of itself. The only decision will be whether Mourinho selects the attack minded Marcelo or the more conservative and defensively solid Coentrao. Given the better attacking relationship with Ronaldo and the need to push Dani Alves back, Marcelo seems more likely to start albeit he has been at fault for goals in recent clasico’s as Guardiola pinpoint ‘s him as a weakness. Coentrao was poor against Bayern but he received no defensive cover from Ronaldo.
How can Mourinho maximise Ronaldo’s attacking ability and release him from defensive duties?
In attack Ronaldo will start. The rest appears up for grabs depending upon how they react from the game on Tuesday night.
Due to his defensive cover and workrate, Di Maria would most likely start but could he manage three games in a week after returning from injury?
Similarly, Benzema played the majority of the game on Tuesday night and links well with Ronaldo however Mourinho favours swift breaks particularly against Barcleona therefore the pace of Higuain, only making a brief substitute appearance against Bayern, is much more useful.
The central decision is then whether Mourinho chooses Ozil, who has contributed little in previous clasico’s, and permits him to drift from side to side, looking to exploit gaps in the Barcelona backline or should an additional defensive minded midfielder be selected to strengthen the central area and sit alongside Alonso and Khedira?
Nuri Sahin has made several appearances lately. He could feature in the central area. Does he have the fitness levels to operate fully at such a high level however? Similar concerns exist over Diarra, who has seldom featured recently. In clichéd football parlance, it’s a big ask expecting either to step straight into the team for such a massive game
This leaves Granero. Would Mourinho consider borrowing from the Unai Emery school of tactics and play Granero deeper than normal to help ball retention? Emery successfully played Parejo deep against Madrid in the recent 0-0 draw.
Barcelona need to win the game whilst Madrid can accept a draw thereby maintaining their 4 point lead. A draw grants Madrid the safety net of one further slip up in the league campaign. Mourinho is first and foremost, a conservative coach. For these reasons and as detailed above, I believe that Madrid will go with a 4-3-3.
I think Mourinho will play Coentrao centrally allowing him to double up with Marcelo when required and letting Ronaldo focus entirely upon the attacking aspects of his game, staying high up the pitch. This will require Coentrao to shuttle from the centre to the left frequently but he has the fitness to do this. It prevents Alves from pushing forward.
Madrid to line up as shown below:-
- Real Madrid Predicted Starting Line Up
Guardiola has utilised so many variations in his formations this season from the basic 4-3-3 to the highly attack orientated 3-3-4 against Getafe recently that a number of subtle system changes during the match are inevitable.
The performances of Ronaldo in the clasico’s has not been at the same level as in other key games for Madrid although he has scored 3 goals in the last 4 games. One possible reason for this has been the performance of Puyol when played directly against him.
With Abidal missing, will Puyol start at full back to match up to Ronaldo?
Will Barcelona go with a three man defence of Puyol, Mascherano and Pique and allow Alves to push further upfield? Part of the success of Alves is his ability to drive forward from deep positions. Starting him higher up the pitch removes this element but it hinders the Madrid left from supporting Ronaldo.
The midfield selects itself. Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta should all start in their normal positions. The ability of Busquets constructing moves is essential if Barcelona are to function properly. If Madrid adopt a 4-3-3, Busquets is likely to get time and space on the ball.
Which brings us to the attack. It seems safe to assume that Messi will begin as a false 9 but with license to roam possibly dropping deep or to the right.
Sanchez has demonstrated his worth to Barcelona already this season and has performed well against Madrid. His starting berth seems assured on the right and cutting inward to a central position playing off the shoulder of Ramos.
This leaves the vacant position on the left of the attack. Pedro has returned to full fitness and is showing glimpses of rediscovering last season’s form. He is fast, direct and prepared to undertake defensive duties also. The alternative wildcard, as such, could be the inclusion of Cuenca. He would stretch the Madrid defence and offers genuine width.
I think Barcelona will begin with a 4-3-3 which is capable of changing to a 3-4-3 with Dani Alves pushing further upfield. Puyol to start as a notional left back but to mark Ronaldo and the defence to switch to a back three as and when required. If Puyol follows Ronaldo across the pitch, Alves can stay high. Pedro starts on the left and with Alves pushing further on, Sanchez starts wide right and cut inward.
Defensively, the Barcelona left will be less concerned if Di Maria starts on the right due to his tendency to drift inward and Arbeloa is not the most attack minded full back. We could up end with a lop sided game, all of the attacking potential on the one side of the pitch.
Barcelona line up:-
- Barcelona Predicted Starting Line Up
The Key Issues
There are countless issues surrounding this game. I have listed below a few issues which I believe are central to the outcome of the game.
Will fatigue be a factor?
Both sides face three massive games in a 7/8 day period. Rotation will be necessary and key players may not play the whole game. How will this affect the teams? Will both field their strongest line up or will changes be enforced?
Will Madrid press?
In the last few clasico’s, Madrid have pressed very aggressively early on but have been unable, understandably given the demands of it, to maintain this for the full duration of the game. They have looked tired lately. Do they want to press, can they press and for how long?
Will Madrid continue to be so direct?
Madrid have become increasingly direct recently, bypassing any build up play and adopting a “get the ball to Ronaldo” strategy. With a front 3, Madrid are likely to be just as direct. The role of Alonso and his passing range becomes particularly important here.
Does Ronaldo track back to offer support for his full back? Or does he remain further forward, occupying Dani Alves and conserving energy for sprints onto through passes? Or should Madrid play Coentrao and Marcelo to free Ronaldo?
Barcelona will dominate possession.
It’s what Barcelona want to do and it’s not something that will unduly concern Madrid as they counter attack so effectively. Will Madrid concede possession freely and retain shape at all costs a la Inter? Will Madrid adopt a 7-3 split in their team?
How can Barcelona retain width?
Barcelona have struggled against opponents when they have lacked width. The temptation to use Fabregas, Messi and Sanchez to gain further control of the game comes at a price – a narrow approach. With Pedro struggling for form, could there be a place for Cuenca in the starting eleven?