It’s that time again. The Clasico, Barcelona vs. Real Madrid—probably the most eagerly awaited, most-watched club fixture in the world.
And while Madrid may not have had the best of starts to the season—and will probably struggle to reach the highest peaks, due to the lack of an out-and-out striker that fits their style—they will go into the match slightly the happier.
Barcelona dropped their first points of the season at Osasuna while los Blancos finally brought a smile to manager Carlo Ancelotti’s face, with probably their best performance of the season to see off Bernd Schuster’s Malaga.
Ancelotti should be happy with the application and attitude of his players, but he's still had precious little time to do much tactically and he still faces a number of problems.
They include what he's going to with Angel di Maria—his best player at the moment—when Gareth Bale is fully fit, and whether or not he’s going to try to lure Luis Suarez away from Liverpool to solve his striker problem.
Suarez would be perfect, but the money is not available at the moment. He is the type of striker that would suit what Real Madrid is trying to do—mobile, a natural goalscorer and a hardworker. Another difficulty for Real Madrid, of course, is that Liverpool do not plan to sell this season. So far, that one is not a goer, and it looks like Alvaro Morata and Karim Benzema will have to do.
But, first things first. If Ancelotti wants to have the best possible chance of getting something from the Nou Camp, he could do a lot worse than take a look at the tactics used by his predecessor, Jose Mourinho, against the Blaugrana.
A third midfielder placed just about where Lionel Messi starts his runs, and a high defensive line that suffocates Barcelona in the middle and puts them out of their comfort zone did the trick more than once for Jose, who, towards the end of his tenure, looked to have the Catalan club's number.
But Ancelotti will probably do what he normally does, which is stick six men behind the ball and trust in his stars to do the business at the other end.
Barcelona come into the game having dropped just two points all season.
That said, there isn't the tactical rigour there was under Pep Guardiola. There is much improvisation, and the side doesn't look to have the solidity that it had. Without the tactical demands and obligations that made them so special a few years back, Barca are a team who depend too much on individual performances.
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Injury has meant that Neymar has been fitting into Messi's role, and as impressive on the ball as the Brazilian is, he starts his runs too deep and doesn't drift wide, with the result that the Barcelona midfield frequently becomes congested.
The return of Messi should see a far more effective Neymar, operating again on the flank, and that system should work, at least for this season. We’ll have to wait and see what happens after that.
Nagging injuries have meant that Messi is not at his best, and it will probably take him some time to get there, but if the little phenomenon has shown us anything over the past few years it's that he's a man for the big occasions. They don’t get much bigger than a Clasico.
A draw would satisfy both coaches, Ancelotti probably more than Tata Martino, who, on the strength of Barcelona's title win last year, would probably get an easier ride from the media than his Italian rival should the Catalans lose.
Defeat for Madrid would let loose all manner of talk about ultimatums and the collapse of the Ancelotti reign and, with noisy neighbours Atletico raising the volume, guarantee a difficult time for many weeks to come for the Italian.