Barcelona vs. Real Madrid: 5 Early Thoughts on the 1st Clasico This Season
More subplots than any TV thriller, the football is almost secondary to the chaos that surrounds this fixture—and what a fixture.
Since May 2, 2009, when Barca dramatically triumphed, 6-2, in the Santiago Bernabeu on the way to an unprecedented treble, we have had the pleasure of an astonishing 20 El Clasicos.
Let's take a look at some early thoughts on the first El Clasico of this, the 2013/14 La Liga season.
The Impact of Bale and Neymar
As usual, the eyes of the footballing world will be looking to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to provide the difference in this fixture, but the addition of Gareth Bale and Neymar provide an interesting new twist.
We've not seen much of ex-Tottenham man Bale, owing to injury and lack of match fitness, but what better way to announce yourself to La Liga than a starring role in El Clasico.
The world's most expensive player showed enough on debut in a one-hour cameo against Villarreal to suggest there is much for Madridistas to be excited about, and if he is employed in the same wide-right role in this fixture, Jordi Alba's defensive credentials will be tested like never before.
Counter-attacks at pace have troubled Barca's defence in the recent past, and the Blaugrana will really have their work cut out to keep both of Madrid's speed merchants at bay for an entire 90 minutes.
Bale's inclusion in this fixture is necessary to give it a completely new dimension, and he will give Madrid, perhaps, something they have been lacking as they have stumbled through games such as Elche and Levante, despite picking up three points in both.
There's no question, to this point, Neymar has had the bigger impact at his new employers.
Barca's Brazilian wunderkind has been simply sensational in all aspects of his play with much of the Blaugrana's attacking threat now coming down the left-hand channel.
Just 10 games into the season, and, already, we are looking at a player completely comfortable in his new surroundings. Assists aplenty have underpinned his performances with recent goal-scoring contributions, evidencing the players' growing influence on proceedings.
How will a Madrid right side of Alvaro Arbeloa and the covering Sergio Ramos or Sami Khedira deal with such an electric turn of pace every bit as dynamic as Bale's, whilst simultaneously containing the omnipresent threat of Lionel Messi in the central areas?
The permutations of the game are many and there is every reason to think that both Bale or Neymar will be decisive in this one.
Two New Records in Sight for Barcelona
Barcelona approach the game with, potentially, two records ready to be broken.
As long as his injury jinx doesn't strike again, you can bet your last penny that the Argentine will want to set the new benchmark in front of his adoring Catalan public.
Although Real Madrid have done a fine job of making fortress Camp Nou seem anything but in recent visits, home advantage could prove crucial. 99,000 cules will be baying for a record 10th win since the start of a La Liga season, should Barca have come through their next fixture at Osasuna with another three points.
That the new record will come at the expense of their fiercest rivals, and the current record holders since way back in 1968, is more than enough incentive to ensure Tata's troops make this a Clasico to remember.
The Importance of Isco
Malaga's loss has most certainly been Real Madrid's gain.
The 2012 "Golden Boy," Isco has been a revelation this season, producing a string of high-level performances that had Carlo Ancelotti enthusing, per Paul Collins of RealMadridNews.com:
Isco is doing very well, he looks like he has been playing here a long time. He has shown his personality, quality and ability.
He has just as much quality on the wing as in the centre, but the defensive work he is doing on the wing is very important.
When we are attacking he can go where he wants and he is very good at choosing the right place on the pitch.
That inate ability to be in the right place at the right time saw him bag five goals in his first six games as well as two assists, but it has been his industry that has really caught the eye.
Sergio Busquets will need to bring his A-game to curtail the youngster's heady mix of outstanding passing accuracy (83 percent against Levante via WhoScored.com), relentless box-to-box movement throughout and dribbling skills par excellence.
Evasive, dynamic and effective, Isco should bring the disco to this one rather than allowing his Clasico party to fall flat.
Who Will Win the Tactical Battle?
At the time of writing, Tata Martino can't have done any more to win over Barca's fanatic support.
Doom and gloom enveloped Camp Nou prior to Martino's hire as the return of Tito Vilanova's illness hit the club, still reeling from a knockout blow on the pitch from Bayern Munich for six.
It is to his great credit that we are now talking in terms of this potentially being a vintage year for Barca.
The first silverware of the season in the Supercup against a strong and well-drilled Atletico Madrid side was followed by eight straight La Liga wins, the Blaugrana scoring 28 and letting in just six in the process.
The team has excelled in almost all areas, and despite constant rotation and the occasional system change, the results have been the same.
Real Madrid will present a much more significant test of Barca's resolve and Martino's tactical acumen, but, for now, there is a very different mood in Catalonia.
Carlo Ancelotti had looked to restore an immediate air of calm to a Madrid side that had been beset by internal wranglings, in which previous manager Jose Mourinho was a chief protagonist. In the main, the Italian has succeeded, although the situation with Iker Casillas remains a thorny issue.
Issues with Spain's record-appearance holder aside, Ancelotti is still seeking his best XI and a system that provides Real with more fluidity and ease of transition.
Unlike Barca, Los Blancos have taken time to get going in virtually every match they have played, conceding first in four of their La Liga fixtures. Ronaldo and Isco aside, Los Blancos look a little disjointed with much of their interplay underwhelming.
It's an issue that Ancelotti needs to work on, and quickly, as Barca will fly out of the blocks bouyed by a frenzied home support. A 4-2-3-1 set up should go some way to stifling the Blaugrana attack in those frenetic early stages, reverting to a more attacking 4-3-3 to take the game to Barca in their own backyard as the game progresses.
How well the visitors adapt is likely to dictate whether Ancelotti can stop Martino from making it a "perfect 10."
Real Madrid's Aerial Threat
Barcelona showed, once again, in their routine home win against Real Valladolid that they have still not managed to get to grips with a simple high ball into the box.
A hush descends over Camp Nou whenever an away side, with a reasonable aerial presence, get a set piece close to Victor Valdes' goal. The nervousness that spreads amongst the Catalan defence in such situations is palpable, and no matter which defence is selected, the problem remains.
In Ronaldo and Raphael Varane, Real Madrid have two of La Liga's finest headers of the ball, with Ronaldo especially likely to cause the Blaugrana back four problems throughout. Indeed, only last season did we see both players dominate the aerial exchanges between the two sides.
So far this season, we have seen Barca's diminutive Andres Iniesta marking Helder Postiga from a corner and Adriano as Javi Guerra's chaperone. Such basic errors have both resulted in goals for the opposition from those dead-ball situations.
With Madrid also offering Sergio Ramos, Pepe and Karim Benzema as a supplementary aerial threat, Barca are going to be hard-pressed to keep a clean sheet in this one.