FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid: Assessing the Key Tactical Battles for El Clasico
El Clásico is always taken seriously by both sides, but the La Liga champion may be decided by the outcome of Saturday's match.
Because of his poor 5-1-4 record in El Clásico, José Mourinho faces immense pressure to produce a substantial victory over his Spanish rival. But Pep Guardiola must find a way to defeat Madrid if his team are going to have a chance to steal La Liga.
Guardiola and Mourinho face several tactical battles that could decide their teams' respective fates in La Liga.
The Possession Battle
An assumption for any match is that Barcelona will maintain a majority of possession.
Controlling the match's flow and pace is their strategy every time they step onto the pitch.
Working combinations through Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Lionel Messi, the Catalan side will pass and move until lanes open up for their attack.
Most opposing teams watch helplessly as their defenses are systematically picked apart, so Madrid must disrupt Barcelona's rhythm and change the flow of the game.
Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira must pressurize Xavi (if this feat is possible) and Sergio Busquets into making dangerous passes that result in costly turnovers.
However, if Madrid become mesmerized by Barcelona's movement, they will concede easy goals.
Madrid's counterattack offers an answer to Barcelona's possession advantage.
Barcelona always maintain a high line along their defense, so the center-backs and full-backs remain involved in the offense and pressurize the opposing midfield.
Consequently, Barcelona will be vulnerable to a quick counterattack led by Mesut Ozil or Cristiano Ronaldo.
While Dani Alves attacks the right wing, that side will be open for Marcelo Vieira to make a run down the field.
Such awareness could result in a unexpected Madrid goal.
To combat the counterattack, Barcelona's forwards will look to apply pressure on the Madrid defense as soon as the ball is lost.
With Lionel Messi and Alexis Sanchez bearing down on them, Pepe or Sergio Ramos may play a dangerous ball for Barcelona to collect in an auspicious position.
Containing the Superstars
Containing Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi is no simple task for any defender. However, keeping them at bay will be crucial for either team.
This season, Messi has scored 43 percent of Barcelona's goals in La Liga, so if Pepe and Sergio Ramos can shut him down, Barcelona will be in trouble.
Real Madrid presents more scoring threats than their Catalan opponents, for Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuaín are all in the top five scorers of La Liga thus far.
With these threats in consideration, Barcelona's defense must balance between keeping a high line and containing Madrid's high-powered attack.
FC Barcelona has proven that they can be unsteady during the beginning of a match. This early stage will be ripe for a Real Madrid attempt on goal.
Karim Benzema scored within 22 seconds after the opening whistle during Real Madrid's December 10, 2011 loss to Barcelona.
With this goal still in their memories, Barcelona will look to pass with meticulous accuracy in the back, for they will not want to concede such an easy goal again.
Additionally, an early goal could prove to be the difference, since Real Madrid will be satisfied to play for a draw.
Involving the Defense
Whichever team risks more will win the game.
The best way to outnumber the opponent's defense is to use full-backs as options on the wings.
Dani Alves is the quintessential attacking full-back. He makes runs along the wing and provides crosses for Barcelona's forwards.
Offensive-minded full-backs not only add attacking numbers, but they also create space. As the opposing defense moves to cover them, other lanes open up for forwards to exploit.
Both Barcelona's patient approach and Real Madrid's explosive attack will benefit from using defenders as offensive options.