Real Madrid and Barcelona both have a couple of selection issues heading into Saturday’s Clasico.
For Barcelona, central defender Gerard Pique is struggling with a muscle injury and has only trained one day this week, leading to the possibility that youngster Marc Bartra will partner Carles Puyol in the heart of defence if Tata Martino thinks Pique is not ready.
Real, meanwhile, might be able to call upon Gareth Bale from the start. On Thursday Ancelotti told Cadena SER Radio—as per Fox Sports—that Bale is ready to start. He played 15 minutes last week against Malaga, about 25 minutes in the Champions League in midweek, and now Real’s staff think he is ready to go from the first whistle.
Real are going to play 4-3-3. The three midfielders are likely to be Luka Modric, Asier Illarramendi and Sami Khedira, with Ancelotti’s aim being to make sure they are not outnumbered or overpowered in midfield.
Those three will be told that one of them must latch onto Lionel Messi whenever he gets the ball in midfield, to avoid allowing him the time and space to make those runs he likes to make with the ball. It is a tactic Jose Mourinho often liked to use in the past.
Real are not going to be sitting very deep, however, they are going to hold the defensive line very high with what is called a 'middle block', compressing the midfield so there is no space for Barcelona to play in.
In attack, obviously Real Madrid are going to try and use the space left by the opposition full-backs—but Barcelona are not going to risk as much as they used to under Tito Vilanova. If one full-back goes up the other has to stay back—that may stop Barcelona being as offensive as they have been in the past, but it should balance them out defensively.
Gerardo Martino’s side are going to try and mix the long ball of Victor Valdes—if they get pressure from Madrid from the back, which they will—with building from the back, but they have not quite found the ideal balance between those two methods just yet.
If Valdes goes long it will be for the wingers, either Pedro, Alexis Sanchez or Cesc Fabregas on one side and Neymar on the other.
But obviously those four will struggle to fight for the ball in the air with Real’s more physical defenders, which is why it is something Pep Guardiola always wanted to avoid.
It is barely 18 months since Guardiola left the club, but his sides set the bar against which subsequent Barca teams are constantly compared. This Barcelona squad is not of that level, they are still a few steps behind.
They still have the ability to win Saturday’s match, as they have got a huge amount of quality. But the structure is not quite in place, and players do not seem to have the same tactical obligations that they had in the past.
In terms of the positioning and what they have to do in certain situations, there is a lot more being left for improvisation under Martino. Like a lot of teams, they have five or six tactical concepts and the rest is left to the players to work out on the match. But with Pep Guardiola it was all about positioning and obligations in almost all situations, and for three years when it worked it was wonderful—and the trophies came with it.
When you leave things to improvisation a lot depends on the quality of the individual players, so I think this is where this match is going to be decided. Both sides are going to field a 4-3-3, but Real’s midfield trio is going to be much more defensively minded, meaning that the three up front will be left to create a lot themselves.
That trio will be Angel Di Maria, Cristiano Ronaldo and then either Gareth Bale or Karim Benzema. Benzema is usually the main striker but has been ill this week, while his understudy Alvaro Morata has potential but probably does not have the experience for such an occasion.
So it may be that Bale starts, especially considering Ancelotti said he is ready to play 90 minutes if selected. If the Welshman does play, it will obviously be a much more direct Real Madrid we see.
If you play Barcelona you want to have fast players up front and also players that you can guarantee will do a lot of work, so it could well be that Ronaldo is the No. 9 leading the line, with Bale on the left and Di Maria on the right.
That will be very interesting because that setup goes into the heart of how to get the best of Barcelona—the space they will leave when moving forward in possession can then be used by these three players on the counter-attack.
So, if Bale is ready, that makes the game very interesting.
As far as Barcelona are concerned, if Pique is missing then it will be Bartra and Puyol in the centre of defence with Xavi and Iniesta and Busquets in midfield. Martino’s big decision is on the right-side of the attacking trio, between Cesc Fabregas, Pedro and Alexis Sanchez.
Barcelona come into this game having drawn two games consecutively and in those two away matches, a 0-0 with Osasuna and 1-1 with AC Milan, they didn’t create many chances, so the suggestion is that they are not moving the ball as fast as they did.
Neymar coming inside from the left a bit too often has killed the space, so Martino will want the Brazilian to be more disciplined tactically. Everyone is raving about Neymar because they see him on the ball trying things in matches, but I think in terms of positioning and the work put into the team—especially off the ball—he still has a lot to learn.
When Barcelona have the ball he needs to be patient and work for his moments, rather than searching out openings and cramping the style of his team-mates.
Neymar being Neymar, and this being the Clasico, I’m not sure he is going to have enough patience to do that, however. He is probably going to want to be the protagonist and make an impact, because it is a big game, and he certainly feels like he is a man for the big game. So it will be interesting to see how the team responds to that, if he comes inside instead of waiting.
Concentrating on his one-on-one battle in wide areas may be a less rewarding job, but it is necessary. Coming inside just creates more problems for the team.
And then of course there is Messi versus Ronaldo. Ronaldo has scored more goals than Messi this season, and he became the first player ever to score in six consecutive Clasicos last year.
Two or three years ago it was said, and I said it too, that the Portuguese did not turn up in big games—and it was true. He certainly does appear now, though, and you can see the difference from back when he could be anonymous in certain big games.
You can count on Ronaldo, and you can count on Messi too.
Physically the Argentine feels good, after just returning from a thigh problem. His lack of goals compared to Ronaldo can partly be put down to that injury, but the club’s staff are confident he is fine now. Nevertheless, he’s got to be sensible about picking his runs on Saturday; he cannot be running constantly and attempting too many of those long-distance slaloms.
He has become very clever at knowing when he should be moving the ball in passing formations with his team, and then picking the right moment to make one of his darting runs with the ball glued to his feet. He needs to get that balance right again on Saturday.
What makes it interesting as well is that, because Real are not going to play very deep, there will be a little bit of space behind the defence and if anyone can use that it is Messi, especially with Xavi and Iniesta in support.
But who is going to partner him—Alexis Sanchez, Pedro or Fabregas? It really depends on what Barca want to do—if they want to control possession it will be Cesc, but if they want someone to run in behind defenders it will be Alexis Sanchez or, more likely, Pedro.
I think Martino will opt for Pedro, because he can get in behind the defence while also working hard for the team. Neymar does not run in behind defenders enough and someone has to for the balance of the attack. Pedro can provide that.
Pedro, Messi and Neymar has the feel of a balanced attacking lineup.
The Clasico will see the same formations, then, but contrasting styles, methods and tactical approaches.
Individual quality might well make the difference—it will be interesting to see which illustrious player provides it.
Prediction? I never get these right, but I see goals at both ends. Fancy a 3-3?