Barca arrive at the fixture still top of La Liga despite dropping points for the first time this season away against Osasuna. Whilst Madrid haven't quite enjoyed the on-pitch fluency of their rivals, a win for Los Blancos draws them level with the Blaugrana.
Barca's lofty perch has been their home since the first day of last season. Their desire to stay there is just one layer in a potentially absorbing contest.
Potentially the most fascinating battle will be in the dug-out. Both managers, Carlo Ancelotti and Tata Martino, bring a new outlook to the fixture. Martino especially has employed a variety of tactics during his tenure this season.
It's a refreshing change to see a manager prepared to utilise different strategies given the strengths and weaknesses of their opponent, rather than ploughing a singular furrow because it's the "Barca way."
Tiki-taka will still be very much in evidence in this game of course, but don't be surprised to see the long ball from the back as Barca look to take advantage of Madrid's high defensive line.
Ancelotti might be hopeful of a recall for Carles Puyol in this one. Whilst the presence of Puyol will lift everyone associated with Barca, the Italian will be well aware of the Catalan's lack of pace and may utilise Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale's speed accordingly.
The lightning-fast counter is where Barca have struggled in the recent past against Real, and there is no reason to expect that this fixture will be any different—unless Martino goes with Marc Bartra alongside Javier Mascherano.
Bartra is finally emerging as a real talent after being given the requisite run of games and the associated confidence that brings. He's shown on more than one occasion this term that he won't be beaten for pace. It would be a shock if he didn't start this match, even if he doesn't finish it.
The return of Mascherano presents Martino with an interesting problem. Does he throw the Argentine in alongside Bartra to combat the speed of the Madrid attack, or will Gerard Pique get the nod because of the height he offers in both a defensive and attacking sense?
Given the various permutations, a Pique-Bartra pairing is the most likely to begin this game. Dani Alves is again an easy pick for the right side, and Adriano Correia continues with his run of games in the absence of the injured Jordi Alba.
Sergio Busquets will continue to frustrate all comers in the defensive midfield role he plays so well. Don't be surprised to see "Busi" in the thick of the action, getting under the skin of the Madrid players.
Andres Iniesta can have no bigger stage on which to find his best form again. Old twinkle toes himself can have a big say in the outcome of this match. Madrid's defence will be fighting fires with the twin threat of Neymar and Lionel Messi, so Iniesta's roving role alongside Xavi Hernandez could prove pivotal for the Blaugrana.
Madrid have their work cut out in blocking the channels to Barca's metronomic pair. The likes of Isco and Sami Khedira will really have to put in a shift in this game to avoid being overrun by a creative and incisive Blaugrana midfield.
Up front Messi and Neymar are shoo-ins, and Martino could spring another surprise by utilising Cesc Fabregas to make up the three.
With Cesc in a false nine and making those trademark runs from slightly deeper, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane would be split on whether to hold position or track Cesc, and in so doing leaving the door ajar for either Neymar or Messi to be at their destructive best.
Positioning both on either wing curtails any forward movement from Marcelo and Dani Carvajal and potentially also forces Bale and Ronaldo to track back more than they would like.
According to Ameen Rabbani of Inside Spanish Football, Martino is likely to continue with his rotation policy in the Clasico:
This is a week of important games, but it will not determine anything. It is still very soon to think about the end of the rotations. The idea is for the players to be right for the end of the season. I have thought about rotations since the start of the season — it is too early yet to make any final analysis.
It's sure to be another highly entertaining fixture. With nothing truly at stake at this point other than professional pride and bragging rights, we could see both teams really open up and go for it.
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