With El Clasico almost upon us, there have been opinions voiced from every side as to who is likely to come out on top in one of the most anticipated matches in recent memory.
For all the talking though, the outcome of the game will undoubtedly be decided by a number of key battles out on the pitch and on the sidelines during this monumental showdown in Camp Nou.
This preview takes a look at four of the key battles between the two sides, profiling the players (and coaches) involved and looking at how these battles will influence the outcome of the game.
There is little doubt that Leo Messi is the best footballer on the planet right now. The only player who can realistically challenge him will be on the opposing side tonight, but general consensus is that Messi is pretty much untouchable.
The unenviable task of combating Messi’s brilliance is likely to fall to Madrid’s Brazilian left back Marcelo; at least that’s the way it appears on paper. Messi does a lot of his best work drifting in from Barca’s right, or perhaps more often, exploding in from Barca’s right, to devastating effect. Except that Messi is almost impossible to pin down to a specific position, partly because of his own brilliance all over the pitch, and partly because of Barca’s system.
Playing alongside David Villa and Pedro in Barca’s front three, we will likely see Messi play centrally for periods, with Villa moving out wide left and Pedro switching to the other side. This means that the task won’t be a straightforward one for the Madrid defence, with responsibility for Messi switching between Marcelo and the Madrid centre backs Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho.
It’s difficult to see any Madrid defender being able to keep Messi quiet for the entirety of the match, but the Barca star does have a statistical duck to break against one Madrid figure; in seven matches against Mourinho’s Inter Milan and Chelsea sides, Messi has never scored against a team led by the self-proclaimed ‘Special One.’
That said, statistics count for little with the way Messi is playing at the moment, and Messi could point to his own statistic (seven goals in the last seven Clasicos including a hat-trick in 2007) to make the case that Madrid are one of his favoured opponents. In fact right now, whoever Messi takes the field against is likely to be a favoured opponent and fairly likely to be his next set of victims.
This one was never going to be close. Messi is likely to come off best in every individual matchup he faces right now, so it will have to be the Madrid defence as a whole that steps up to nullify, or at least reduce the threat posed by the winger. However well Madrid play, it seems inevitable that Messi will impact the game significantly at some point, so expect Messi to break his scoring duck against Mourinho.
When La Liga’s top goalscorer goes up against La Liga’s best full back, you know you are in for an exciting encounter. When those two players are Cristiano Ronaldo and Dani Alves, the excitement level gets turned up a few notches. The Portuguese winger and the Brazilian right back are two of the world’s most entertaining players, both possessing blistering speed, explosive power, exquisite technique, as well as regular theatrics.
Ronaldo is in the form of his life right now; 14 goals and five assists in Madrid’s first twelve league games is an outrageous total that puts him far ahead of any other player in Europe, apart from a certain Argentine superstar. Ronaldo is facing a statistical anomaly of his own though; despite his stunning goalscoring record in both England and Spain, he has never scored against Barca in his five matches versus the Catalans with both Manchester United and Madrid.
There may be something more to this stat than Messi’s, given that Messi has scored many against Madrid (if not Mourinho) whereas Ronaldo’s drought is against Barca themselves, but his recent scoring exploits suggest Ronaldo will not be losing too much sleep over it. Having just reached his half century of goals as a Madrid player (in just 53 games, a club record), Ronaldo looks close to unstoppable right now.
His pace, dribbling and shooting qualities have never been in doubt, while in his heading and set-piece abilities he arguably has more strings to his bow than even Messi does. More importantly though, Ronaldo appears to have grown into a real team player, and thrives in his role on the left of Madrid’s attacking quartet. All of that points to the fact that Alves faces a huge task in seeking to deal with Ronaldo, although the Brazilian’s own attacking qualities may add an interesting dynamic to the battle.
The ability of Alves at the opposition end, not to mention the potential presence of Messi down Barca’s right, means that Ronaldo is also going to be called into regular defensive action, and it is here that Barca will be hoping for a real upper hand. The more they occupy Ronaldo at the defensive end, the less opportunity he will have to threaten the Barca goal.
On the other hand, while Madrid may concede large spells of possession to Barca, they are likely to be devastating on the counter attack, with Ronaldo at his best breaking at pace as showcased on numerous occasions already this season, it’s possible that this scenario could play right into Madrid’s hands.
This will probably be the most important battle in the whole game, with Alves’ performance at both the attacking and defensive end likely to be a real defining factor in who comes out on top. Ronaldo is sure to cause problems, and his range of attacking threats suggests that it would be no surprise to see him break his scoring duck against Barca. Expect Alves to also cause Madrid a number of problems with his crossing ability and link up with Messi, and it is here that the battle could be won for Barca.
Not content with displaying the top two players in world football, El Clasico also brings us the two best passers in world football. Both of these players are pass masters, with Xavi the heartbeat of the Barcelona system for nearly a decade now, and Alonso playing a similar role at Madrid since his arrival from Liverpool a year and a half ago. While they may be adversaries on the international stage, they will be sworn enemies for ninety minutes tonight.
While other players may be more devastating in the final third, everything in the middle of the park will revolve around these two players, and the passing range that both possess will be key to controlling the play and starting off attacking moves for their side.
Alonso will find himself in the peculiar possession of being in a side that is likely to be chasing possession for much of the game, something he is not used to in recent times. While Madrid dominate possession in most of their games, tonight he will be on Barca’s turf, a concert hall where Xavi is used to conducting the play and making sweet football music.
Nobody runs a team quite like Xavi in the modern era, and the quantity and quality of passes he plays during the average ninety minutes are a lesson to any aspiring young footballer. Despite injury concerns this season, which have been linked to the sheer number of miles on his clock (you won’t hear it on the terraces of Camp Nou, but Xavi is getting older like the rest of us), Xavi is still at the top of his form this season. When he plays well, Barca usually play well, and many believe the team misses its midfield general more than it misses even Messi, which is testament to the quality of the player.
On the other side, with Alonso likely to have his time in possession limited, he is going to have to make the most of the passes he plays, something he is well capable of. Alonso has become a fundamental piece in this Madrid side, not as spectacular as Ronaldo, but often just as influential to Madrid’s play. Tonight he will face one if his toughest test against international colleagues Xavi and Andres Iniesta in the middle of the pitch, but if he can hold his own then it may well tip the balance in Madrid’s favour.
Even for the most optimistic Madrid fan, that seems a big if, with the number of players who get the better of Xavi at Camp Nou pretty much the same as the number of passes Xavi misplaces at Camp Nou; close to zero.
Both of these players are superb thinkers, superb passers and superb leaders. Of course the battle in the centre of the park will feature other players; Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil and possibly Lassana Diarra for Madrid, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta for Barca. Yet it also seems obvious that many of the most significant contributions will be made by Alonso and Xavi, and it seems likely that the sheer volume of possession will give Xavi more of an opportunity to influence, so expect him to have the upper hand.
This promises to be a fascinating encounter between two men who, while they may have been leagues apart in terms of their playing careers, are both at the top table of football management. While Mourinho got the better of Guardiola in their only major matchup to date, last year’s Champions League semi-final between Barca and Inter Milan, that isn’t likely to count for much come kickoff time in El Clasico.
Both coaches have stunning managerial resumes, and there seems little doubt that both will go down as one of the top managers of this or any era, with an impressive trophy cabinet to boot. Guardiola won six trophies in 2009, his first year as Barca manager, and followed that up with a second successive La Liga crown last season.
Mourinho, while more travelled and more experienced than Guardiola, is also a born winner. Champions League triumphs with FC Porto (only the second in their history) and Inter Milan (their first since 1965) are perhaps his most impressive achievements, but the master tactician has also collected two league titles with Porto, two with Inter and two English Premier league titles with Chelsea, not to mention several cup competitions.
Six league titles in eight seasons of management, at least one trophy in every calendar year since 2002, a league, cup and European treble this year (the first in Italian history), there seems little doubt that having Mourinho in the dugout almost guarantees success.
This time around however, Mourinho faces his toughest challenge to date; finishing top of La Liga, ahead of a Barca side that has won the league title for the past two years and is regarded by many as one of the greatest sides of all-time. Only adding to the pressure, the fact that Barca and Madrid have been so dominant over the rest of La Liga means that even more rests on tonight’s game, with neither side likely to drop many points in games outside of El Clasico.
The pair have shown already that they both thrive on that type of pressure, whilst maintain slightly different footballing philosophies, with Guardiola loved for the free flowing attacking style he encourages, and Mourinho respected (and in some parts despised) for the more pragmatic and defensive style he is thought to deploy. That said, anyone who has seen Mourinho’s Chelsea side that featured Damien Duff, Arjen Robben & Frank Lampard, his Inter side with Wesley Sneijder, Samuel Eto’o & Diego Milito, or this current Madrid team with Angel Di Maria, Ozil, Ronaldo & Gonzalo Higuain, would also have to recognise that Mourinho’s sides are not shy on attacking flair either.
Too close to call. Mourinho may be slightly superior tactically, but Guardiola’s system allows his star players to thrive and is highly effective.
In a contest featuring the best two club sides in the world, separated by one league point at this point, both managers will be have to be at their best tonight, both motivationally and tactically, if their side is to leave the game triumphant. Who that will be remains to be seen.