We're two games into an already classic series. Real Madrid and Barcelona have shared 210 minutes on the pitch, but still have at least 180 more to go. Tomorrow at the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, the Spanish giants kick off probably the most important portion of this showdown with the 2011 UEFA Champions League semifinals.
We're still very much in the fog of war, but that won't stop me from making a few quick observations about what we've seen so far, and what's to come. As a Blaugrana supporter, I especially want to focus on the outlook for Barca.
- In the realm of sports cliches, Real has all the momentum. This one is kinda like a duh. After salvaging a point from the league match, Real came out on fire in the first half of the Copa del Rey final, and then held off a torrid Barca in the second half.
After Di Maria's perfect cross found a leaping Ronaldo in the box in extra time, Real had won its first cup in 18 years, and claimed four of the first fix points available in the series. If there is such a thing as momentum in sports, Real has it right now.
- Injuries and suspensions are taking their toll. In tomorrow's match, Real will be missing center back Ricardo Carvalho and defensive midfielder Sami Khedira. Those are big losses but Real has the depth to withstand them.
Barcelona, in contrast, is in real trouble. Although they will benefit from the return of their captain and defensive stalwart Carles Puyol, they will be without any of their natural left backs (Eric Abidal, Maxwell, Adriano), and, more importantly, are likely to be without star midfielder Andres Iniesta. In addition, Barca is missing striker Bojan Krkic.
The left back issue may be addressed by playing Puyol at left back and inserting Javier Mascherano in at center back. Alternatively, Seydou Keita could try to play left back, or Mascherano could play right back and Dani Alves could move left.
None of these are perfect options but they are lesser headaches than what Pep will face in composing his midfield. Without Iniesta, the most natural midfield three for Barcelona would include Sergi Busquets, Xavi and Keita. That is how Barcelona typically lines up without Iniesta.
There is only one problem with that: Keita is not a player. He just is not cut out for this level of competition. We saw it in the San Siro last year when Barcelona struggled to create a flowing game and lost 3-1 to Inter, and really on every other big occasion in which Keita participates.
His defensive abilities are acceptable but he provides nothing at all in terms of creativity and attack. Keita starting in midfield will give Real control of the matchup. What, then are Guardiola's other choices?
One option is the young Brazilian Thiago Alcantara, another product of Barcelona's fine academy. The 20-year-old has drawn comparisons to Xavi, but so far has not seen action in games of this magnitude. It would require a lot of guts and faith for Guardiola to entrust him to this occasion.
The other option?
At least in the first leg at the Bernabeu, go with a midfield of Mascherano-Busquets-Xavi. This assumes that neither Mascherano nor Busquets would be called into defense. At first this seems a little defensive by Barca's standard. But I think it may be just right.
Busquets has an array of attacking skills which he does not usually have the chance to display. In an away game with high leverage, he could play a box-to-box role in which he both tandems with Mascherano to destroy Real's attacks and participates in Barca's build-up in attack.
Barca in its current wounded state is not looking to win tomorrow's match. A 1-1 draw would suit it perfectly well in time for the return leg. A more conservative but still skillful midfield in this mold would be somewhat reminiscent of the Spanish World Cup double pivot, and could lead to such a result.
Of course, in order for this midfield trio to be possible, Guardiola must find a non-Mascerano non-Busquets solution on defense, and that is a big if.
- This is truly Messi's stage. After Ronaldo made himself be heard in the cup final, it's time for Messi to respond. As the greatest player in the world it is his duty to win this game for his team, which right now finds itself in as dire a predicament as its been in the last three years or so. An away goal from Messi at the Bernabeu would be the biggest goal he's ever scored, and the pinnacle of his career. Time to shine, kid.
- My prediction?
I think that despite everything, Barca will eek it out. Real has shown heart and played great thus far. Mourinho has trained them well. But Barcelona is still superior, and they have too much on the line. With their pride wounded, they will take an away goal at the Bernabeu (tie 1-1) and follow it up with a big home win (3-1). Barca-Man U final.