So here it is, the most anticipated game in Spain and in the whole world: Barcelona v. Real Madrid.
There is something special about this match which is pretty difficult to describe. It is a true battle, it is literally a battle, and winning it tastes like winning a trophy like the Champions League. I'd even go and say that I'd prefer beating Barcelona home and away over winning a trophy.
It just feels so good when that happens.
Real Madrid head into the Clasico with many key players in the sickbay. Those include: Van Nistelrooy, Sneijder, Pepe, Torres, Heinze, Diarra, and De La Red. What makes it worse is that they'll be missing Arjen Robben and Marcelo due to suspension.
Los Blancos have been performing poorly this season and have lost many points in the league. They are currently in fifth place—nine points behind the leaders Barcelona so this match will either reduce or extend the gap.
On the other hand, Barcelona don't have as much injured players as Real have. Iniesta is still recovering from his injury while Milito is still out and won't be returning anytime soon.
In terms of performance, the Blaugrana have been beating one team after another both in the League and the Champions League, however, their 20 matches un-beaten run came to end against Shakhtar in the Champions League as they lost 3-2.
Real have beaten Barca three times in the last two seasons. In the 2006-07 season, Real won 2-0 at the Bernabeu and drew with Barcelona 3-3 at the Camp Nou.
In the 2007-08 season, Real beat Barcelona 1-0 at the Cam Nou and 4-1 at the Bernabeu.
As you can see, they are in it for revenge more than for the points.
Ramos instead of Schuster
If there is one thing that we didn't expect then it is the sacking of Bernd Schuster. Just a few weeks ago, the same man who sacked Schuster, stated that the German was staying, but after losing to Sevilla 4-3 and making the following statement: "Winning in Barcelona is impossible," Mijatovic decided to give the German the axe.
The replacement was Juande Ramos. His debut was against Zenit and what a better way to start than beating Zenit 3-0 with a fantastic performance from the team.
This change has certainly made everyone think twice about the Clasico. With Schuster, everyone was saying that since their coach raised the white flag, they will not win. But now with Ramos, we are unpredictable thus making the Clasico even more interesting.
Lineup and tactics
The squad list hasn't been announced yet, but we pretty much know who is fit and who is not. Heinze, Sneijder, Pepe, and Torres will all miss the clash, but there is a chance that De La Red could make it (even maybe Sneijder).
Add to those folks, another two fit players, Robben and Marcelo who are suspended and therefore will not play. It is a shame that Robben won't play because he is in a fantastic form and our most dangerous player—what is worst that we don't have another winger—not as effective and dangerous as he is.
Ramos will therefore call up a few players from the Castilla. Those will be: Gorka, Palanca, Chema Antón, and Alberto Bueno.
Casillas was benched against Zenit, but I'm 100 percent sure he'll play in the Clasico. The speculation and anticipation is all about our defense.
How will Ramos lineup his defenders? Marcelo is suspended and Heinze is injured. Who will play as a left-back? If we say Drenthe, who will then replace Robben in the midfield? If we say Salgado, will Ramos or Metzelder play on the right?
I personally don't know how Ramos will figure it out, but I hope he'll come up with a solid defense especially in the left-back area where Messi hangs out.
In the midfield, things are clearer. Gago, who has been playing very well recently, will start along Guti. They should be able to work together, recover balls and build up games. The key is always to hold ball possession and disallow their midfielders from passing the ball to the attacking line.
On paper, their midfield is stronger than ours. Toure is quite scary. A big guy hanging out there. Xavi is an artist. He can literally change any game at any moment with either one pass or one strike. So our midfield will be the key.
As on the wings, van der Vaart will start on the right, while Drenthe on the left. I was hoping that Real would appeal Robben's second yellow card but that didn't happen. Drenthe is similar in terms of pace. It will be his night, everyone will be counting on Drenthe.
He'll hopefully play better. He has the pace but he lacks intelligence. He lacks the dribbling skills, the correct crosses and passes.
Upfront, Raul will absolutely start no question about that. Higuain will definitely start as well as he is our top goalscorer.
If those guys can be effective and score off any chance, we'll win. We won't probably be able to produce many chances so we'll be counting on their effectiveness in front of goal. This is where Van Nistelrooy is mostly needed.
I thought that instead of giving you more historic background about Barcelona and how they hate us so much, I e-mailed the Barca blogger at TheOffside, Isaiah, and he kindly agreed to provide us with some current information about Barcelona in an interview fashion. Thanks Issaiah!
Adam: Can you update us on Barcelona in terms of injuries or suspensions?
Isaiah: Currently we have Andres Iniesta out with a right hamstring problem; he just began training with the ball again this week, but don't expect him to make the squad list, much less the starting lineup. Currently our only long-term injury is to Gabriel Milito, who suffered a knee injury towards the end of last season and is expected miss through February.
Adam: Who do you think are the most effective, consistent and dangerous players on the Barcelona squad that Real should be aware of (other than Messi)?
Isaiah: It depends a lot on how you define "effective" and "dangerous," of course. Xavi is our most effective and efficient player and is thus, in at least one sense, our most dangerous player (even more so than Messi). There's a quiet cult around Xavi, our vice captain and active appearances leader, which has definitely developed a more vocal attitude since the Euros.
He's both capable of providing the obvious killer pass through the heart of a defense and doing the dirty work in midfield to win back the ball. His positioning is excellent and his knowledge of what pace to set is breathtaking (in a slow-motion sort of way).
It's widely known that I have a serious mancrush on Yaya Toure, so I'll throw him out there as well. He's the classic destroyer, but he can also carry the ball and start the attack with a good long ball.
If he gets the ball with a wide open look at goal from anywhere on earth, watch out for his shot because if it's on target (and I'll admit it rarely is), it's going into the back of the net like a super shot from Nintendo World Cup. The center of the field is Yaya's home and invading Yaya's home means incurring the wrath of a 6'4" 5,000 megaton warhead that will strip you of both the ball and your dignity. Can you tell I have a mancrush?
Adam: Do you think that the appointment of Ramos as Real's new coach will in a way improve Real's performance in the Clasico? Do you think it was a good decision?
Isaiah: I'm not sure about this one, to be honest. Going based on my extremely minimal knowledge of psychology—I saw What About Bob once—I would say that Real are going to be more fired up because of Ramos than they would have been under Schuster. It's not necessarily "a breath of fresh air" and it's probably nothing to do with what kind of guy Ramos is, but the change will probably give the players a bit of a jolt.
It's the players who matter, in the end, and it depends on whether or not Raul can get his teammates to bring the fire. Frustration is high in the RM locker room, I'm sure, so perhaps this will alleviate some of that and let them get back to the business of getting that little round thing in the big rectangular thing. I just hope it's our little round thing in your big rectangular thing rather than vice-versa. Details, details.
Adam: What do you think of Real at the moment?
Isaiah: They're a good team in a bad place. And I don't mean that they're in freefall or any of that "crisis" nonsense. I mean that they're stuck between expectations and the media, which is a tough place for any squad to be in. Barça's squad was there last year and it was unfair then and it's unfair now. To act as if RM is somehow pulling a total tank job is both naïve and an insult to Villarreal, Valencia, and Sevilla, who are playing (generally speaking) wonderfully.
Yes, Real Madrid are in fifth before Christmas, have lost four times, and are shipping goals at a higher-than-average rate (there are only four teams who have allowed more goals, though oddly enough none of them are in the relegation zone).
Injuries have the curious effect of reducing teams from well-oiled machines to shadowy vestiges of their former selves. It's not an excuse for RM (no more so than for Barça last year), but it is a fact that the infirmary is full of players. Ruud is better than Alberto Bueno, but you might see the youngster out there this time around rather than the Dutchman, which suggests that RM won't be the same RM that we're all used to in Clásicos.
However, there are very few teams on earth that wouldn't do wonders with a lineup that consisted of Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Cannavaro, Gago, Guti, Van der Vaart, Raul, and Higuain, among others. That's eight world class players (with the possible exception of Raul, though I'm sure many RM fans would dispute that vehemently), yet many are complaining bitterly about how poor and undermanned their team is. Tell that to Getafe.
Adam: Barca haven't beaten Real in the last four Clasicos, does this mean that beating Real even when they are playing poorly is not fairly easy as many Barca fans think?
Isaiah: El Clásico is never easy, which is why it's El Clásico and not just another random game on the schedule. We're talking serious business here and under no circumstance should RM be taken lightly. What made last year's 4-1 and the Ronaldinho 3-0 in '05 so surprising was not that RM beat Barça (it's happened before, much to my chagrin) or that Ronaldinho scored against Madrid, but rather that they were, basically, ass-whoopings rather than real games.
I'm sure it made RM fans happy to win like that last year as "Ronnie's win" made we cules ecstatic, but to expect that sort of thing to happen this year is silly. Perhaps it will, but it probably won't. If any Barça fan thinks it's going to be easy, then rest assured that he or she is a fool.
Adam: Can you be honest and answer this question: Do you really fear Real Madrid regardless of their form?
Isaiah: I know it sounds cliché, but I never fear any team no matter what. I think we can beat any team in the world (especially right now), but that doesn't mean that I don't respect other teams or feel that we should do our utmost to prepare for games with them. RM are always dangerous and failing to take this match seriously would be stupid; it's not a mistake Pep Guardiola will make, having played in a fair few of them himself. Messi and Eto'o will, I think be terrors up front and Henry has been making noise about wanting revenge for last year, so I don't think anyone is waltzing into this game with hat-trick expectations.
I look forward to the Clásico regardless of our form or RM's because, even with last year's version in the Bernabeu, there is something special about the game. No true fan of either team can ever fear the other one, but if no true fan can fail to respect their players either. I'm always nervous about these matches, but I'm nervous when play teams like, say, randomly drawing a name from a bag here, Numancia.
Adam: Last but not least, what is your lineup and prediction for the game?
Isaiah: Valdes, Alves, Marquez, Puyol, Abidal, Toure, Xavi, Gudjohnsen, Henry, Messi, Eto'o
The only question I would have would be Guddy and whether or not Guardiola puts on Hleb or Keita instead. I do expect our Icelandic Monument to play (and be somewhat statuesque in midfield) because he's played his way out of the doghouse this year. If somehow, some way Iniesta is fit, he'll start instead of Guddy, but I just don't see that happening.
Predicting these games is hard, of course, and I've rarely been right so far this year. Because of what we've discussed above (dangerous players, RM's injuries), I do think that Barça will win this game. It won't be a manito or anything totally nuts like that, but this is our best chance in the last couple of years to lay a good one on our archrivals. And, to be perfectly honest, I think we'll win this one going away. 3-1 Barça, goals by Eto'o, Messi, and Alves.
I'm not gonna predict the outcome of this Clasico, because I really have no idea. Instead, I leave that to you guys. Tell me what you think in terms of lineup, tactics and prediction!
P.S: Here is a video of Real's 2-0 win at the Bernabeu when Capello was in charge. It was a fantastic game!