Type Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi into Google and you’d be forgiven for thinking they were about to take part in a heavyweight title match against each other on Sunday night in front of a packed house at the Bernabeu.
Real Madrid against Barcelona runs much deeper than that, though.
It always has and it always will—these 100 top El Clasico moments prove that.
And while Ronaldo and Messi do deserve the heavyweight billing, it shouldn’t be forgotten that there are countless other battles going on all over the pitch that will help decide the match and have huge implications in the title race.
When the two sides met at Camp Nou in October, neither of the big two scored—Neymar and Alexis Sanchez hogged the headlines on that occasion.
But who will the gaggle of Spanish daily sports newspapers be hailing come Monday morning?
Bale vs. Alba
Thrown into the middle of Carlo Ancelotti’s front three, it is fair to say the last El Clasico wasn’t a particularly crowning moment for either Gareth Bale or his boss.
There is a feeling this time things could work out much better.
Bale has created 11 goals in the league this season, and last weekend’s performance was good enough to draw comparisons with the time he reduced Rayo Vallecano full-back Anaitz Arbilla to tears with his devastating pace.
According to Squawka statistics, on seven of the eight occasions when he tried to beat his man, he succeeded and created five chances throughout the match for his Los Blancos colleagues.
Barca left-back Jordi Alba will have to be careful.
So often prone to racing forward, if he leaves any space in behind, then Bale is far better equipped to exploit it now when he was left looking like a lost sheep as a central striker in the first fixture.
Di Maria in midfield
One of the revelations of Real Madrid’s 31-match unbeaten run has been Angel di Maria in the middle of midfield alongside Luka Modric—arguably the club’s second-best player this season—and Xabi Alonso.
It was a position he had touched on previously with the Argentine national team, but it has still been notable how much enthusiasm, energy and effectiveness he has brought to the role—at both ends of the pitch as well.
In a midfield packed with tiki-taka-playing Spanish internationals and the technical brilliance of Modric, di Maria could spark the difference.
In some of Barcelona’s biggest games—such as the last El Clasico—Gerardo "Tata" Martino has opted for a midfield-heavy approach.
Out have gone two of the three men who play second fiddle to Messi—Alexis Sanchez, Neymar, Pedro—and into the front three one of Cesc Fabregas or Andres Iniesta has been bumped forward. It’s an approach which was particularly common under Tito Vilanova.
How Tata decides to go for Sunday night’s match could either make or break his Barca career.
The Argentine coach was very clear in his pre-match press conference (h/t Sport) on Saturday morning that they are approaching the match in the same style in which they approached the first leg of the Champions League tie against Manchester City.
That would suggest Neymar starts with Messi, while Alexis and Pedro settle for places on the bench, a decision that will shape the encounter hugely—but in which direction?
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