Barcelona vs. Real Madrid: 7 Legitimate Predictions for El Clasico Showdown
For Real Madrid and Barcelona, this game couldn't be taking place at a worse time. For football fans though, the timing is perfect.
Real Madrid and Barcelona will both come into this game under significant pressure. Both of the Spanish giants lost in the first leg of their Champions League semifinals, and can't afford another loss as they both look to built momentum ahead of the second leg of the semifinals.
But beyond that, this game will likely decide who wins the La Liga title, and all the bragging rights that come with it.
If Real Madrid win or draw at the Camp Nou, the title is theirs. Real Madrid still have four games after the Clasico before the end of the season, but the opposition isn't nearly strong enough to force Madrid to drop four points in four games.
But if Barcelona win, Madrid will be on the edge of one of the biggest collapses in La Liga history. Their 10 point lead will have been cut down to a solitary point, and it's it's very possible that Los Blancos will drop points against Sevilla or Athletic Bilbao.
But before we get too drawn into the implications of the game, let's pause and analyze what we'll see in the Clasico. Instead of "bold" predictions this time, I'll be giving you predictions on what I believe is likely to take place during the game.
Cristiano Ronaldo Will Score
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Contrary to popular belief, Cristiano Ronaldo is one of Real Madrid's most consistent performers in El Clasico.
In five matches against Barcelona this season, he's scored three times. Last year, he scored twice in five games against Barcelona, earning his team a draw at home and beating Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey final.
Ronaldo's opposition on the left flank, Dani Alves, showed this week how fragile he is on defense as Ramires exploited his poor positioning to cross the ball to Didier Drogba, who redirected the ball on target to put Chelsea up 1-0 at home.
Puyol will be on hand to help cover for Alves when he races up the pitch, but I expect Ronaldo to be able to beat the Barca captain on at least one occasion during the game.
In addition, Real Madrid are notorious for being possibly the best counter-attacking team in the world, and Dani Alves will leave his flank unprotected on a number of occasions as he marauds forward to aid Barca's offense.
If Madrid's defenders can do their job and stop Barca's attacks, it's very likely that Madrid will have at least a couple good counter-attacking opportunities to score.
If Ronaldo is at the end of those counter-attacks, instead of initiating them, it's safe to say that his name will be on the score-sheet.
Lionel Messi Will Also Score
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Lionel Messi went in the Chelsea game in red-hot form.
To be precise, he'd scored in 10 consecutive La Liga matches. And not only that, but he recorded two hat-tricks and three braces over that stretch, bringing his goal-total to 18 goals in league play.
Which makes Chelsea's ability to keep him off the scoresheet in London all the more remarkable.
But Real Madrid's defense is not on par with Chelsea's at present, and it does not have the benefit of playing at home either.
After watching Ramos commit numerous mistakes vs. Bayern Munich, and seeing Fabio Coentrao and Alvaro Arbeloa get worked by Philipp Lahm and Ribery, respectively, I have no doubt that Messi will get his name on the scoresheet.
The only question is how many times he'll do it.
Pepe Wll Do Something Controversial
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Pepe's been able to stay pretty controversy-free in recent games.
Expect that streak to end this weekend.
And when Alves and Messi start pressuring the Madrid box this weekend, it's almost a certainty that Pepe will crack under the pressure and let his anger take hold of him.
The only question is whether he'll be able to restrain himself enough to only pick up a yellow card, or if he'll find himself sent off once again vs. Barcelona.
The Referee Will Be Tested
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The referee for this weekend's Clasico will be Alberto Undiano Mallenco—the same referee who ref'd the Copa Del Rey final between Real Madrid and Barcelona.
The game was one of the few Clasicos concluded without major missed calls by the referee.
Barcelona complained about the physicality and defensiveness of Mourinho's tactics, but Mallenco did protect both teams by showing eight total yellow cards and sending Angel di Maria off at the end of the game.
That being said, I doubt Mallenco will be as fortunate this time around.
In that game, Mourinho very unexpectedly played Ronaldo as his team's center forward, and deployed Pepe as a central defensive midfielder, but those are two tactical decisions Mourinho has showed no desire to repeat in recent games.
What that means is that both teams will be fighting to get chances in and around each other's boxes, and that means we'll be treated to some of the finest diving world football has to offer from the likes of Sergio Busquets, Dani Alves and Angel di Maria (if he plays).
Messi and Ronaldo may also attempt a dive or two if the situation calls for it.
Mallenco already seems well-suited to deal with the physicality that shows up in every Clasico. It remains to be seen if his no-nonsense approach will help him in differentiating between dives and non-dives as well.
Barcelona Will Dominate Possession
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Domination of possession is a given in practically every game Barcelona plays in. Real Madrid have managed 42 percent possession against Barca this season, but that's about as good as its gotten for any team vs the Catalans.
At the Camp Nou, I expect that Barca will secure 66 percent possession or greater if Jose Mourinho sticks to the 4-2-3-1 he's used to try and beat Barcelona in the past.
The problem with the 4-2-3-1 is that it isn't sufficiently committed to offense or defense against Barca.
Real's front three often find themselves isolated from the team's attacking midfielder (be it Ozil or Kaka) and the two defensive/holding midfielders, and the team's full-backs aren't good enough to handle the responsibility of defending properly and linking up with the offense.
If Mesut Ozil or Kaka are on top of their game, they can occasionally link the team's midfield with the team's forwards, but neither Ozil or Kaka have been able to maintain the insanely high level of play required to do so over 90 minutes.
Victor Valdes Will Turn in Another Shaky Performance
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Victor Valdes was criticized heavily after Barca's 1-0 defeat to Chelsea this past Wednesday. He was significantly outplayed by his counterpart in goal, Petr Cech, who arguably faced many tougher shots on goal from Barcelona but managed to keep a clean sheet.
Opta Sports may have summarized the difference between the two keepers with this tweet:
43—Petr Cech has had to make 34 more saves than Victor Valdes (9) in the Champions League this season. Defences—Opta Sports (@OptaJoe) April 18, 2012
No La Liga fan can forget the error that Valdes committed in La Liga's first Clasico, which allowed Karim Benzema to score in the first minute of the game.
I don't think we'll see a gaff of the same magnitude, but I can see Valdes struggling and maybe conceding a soft goal to Real Madrid's offense.
Mesut Ozil's Performance Will Determine the Outcome of the Game
I already hinted to this in the slide on Barcelona's possession, but I believe Ozil is Real Madrid's greatest hope to secure a positive result in El Clasico.
In the second leg of the two team's quarterfinal Copa Del Rey matchup this season, many people expected Barca to run riot against Madrid, since they'd already managed to beat Madrid away from home.
But what happened was that Madrid instead recorded a very credible draw, and nearly found the third goal that would've leveled the score on aggregate.
This happened because Mesut Ozil was able to turn in his best Clasico performance yet.
He played his teammates in on goal repeatedly, creating a number of decent scoring chances in the process. And of course, the thunderbolt that hit the bar in the 25th minute of that game is a chance that is etched into the minds of many Madrid fans.
If Ozil can produce a performance similar to the one he produced last time out vs the Catalans, he'll help Real Madrid record a similar result as well.
And this time, they'll be happy to take it.