Real Madrid vs FC Barcelona: Predicting Barcelona's Lineup for El Clásico
After a very sad week for European football, with Lyon advancing to the next round of the UEFA Champions League on very questionable circumstances to put it mildly (farcical would be a more appropriate term), football fans all over the world will be treated to another installment of the greatest rivalry in club football: El Clásico.
For the first time in four seasons, FC Barcelona are being seriously challenged at the top of Spanish and European football, with José Mourinho's Real Madrid looking capable of finally dethrone the all-conquering Catalans and put an end to one of the most dominant runs in the sport's history.
Madrid have been in stellar form, while Barcelona have not been able to replicate their incredible level from last season and find themselves three points behind the Madrid giants with Real having a game in hand. If Barcelona are defeated at the Bernabeu, their stranglehold on La Liga will be in very serious jeopardy and the league title will be Real Madrid's to lose.
In 26 official matches this season, Pep Guardiola used 26 different lineups, due both to injuries and his own rotation policy, which some speculate might be the cause for Barcelona's relative slump.
Here's how the Catalans should line up at the Bernabeu:
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GK: Victor Valdés
There is absolutely no question here. Victor Valdés is untouchable and has been one of Barcelona's best players this season and is the best goalkeeper in La Liga from a statistical point of view.
LB: Eric Abidal
Éric Abidal has been having a very good season and he'll have to be at his best to contain the threat of Angel Di Maria. He's been arguably the most consistent Barcelona defender in the past two seasons and a starting spot should be guaranteed.
CB: Carles Puyol
This one isn't so clear. Puyol is the legendary Barcelona captain and would usually be a lock for a big game like this, but there's the possibility that Javier Mascherano is picked ahead of him, based on his stellar form this season.
Still, even if he has been used sparingly this season, Puyol might get the nod given how big this game is. Puyol's quality and experience remains an invaluable asset to the Catalan club, who haven't lost a single match in the past two seasons with their captain on the pitch.
CB: Gerard Piqué
This one is a no-brainer. Although he's been injured for a long period this season, Piqué remains a formidable defender and his height and physical strength will be very important against Real Madrid. He will surely start.
RB: Daniel Alves
Bar some unexpected twist, Daniel Alves will surely start at right-back for Barcelona on Saturday. His job will be to contain the threat of Cristiano Ronaldo, just like he did a few months ago in the Spanish Super Cup, and provide a useful attacking outlet.
Alves hasn't been at his very best this season, but he tends to thrive in the biggest games and it doesn't get any bigger than El Clásico as far as club football is concerned.
DM: Sergio Busquets
There are some rumours that Pep Guardiola might choose Keita for this match due to his superior physicality, but logic suggests that Busquets will start as always.
Busquets has easily dealt with the likes of Ozil and Kaka every time he faced them and Pep Guardiola will expect him to do the same this time around and nullify the threat posed by Real Madrid's attacking midfielders.
CM: Xavi Hernandez
This is an obvious pick. Xavi is the one who pulls the strings for Barcelona week in and week out and tends to raise his game even more on the biggest occasions. There's no doubt that he will start.
AM: Andrés Iniesta
Not much to say here. If Messi is Barcelona's star and No.1 player, Iniesta is right up there with him and is an absolute lock to start. Barcelona lost some ground in La Liga while Iniesta was out injured as he couldn't be properly replaced.
Provided that he is fit, he will start on Saturday and be one of the key players if Barcelona are to win this match.
LW: David Villa
Pep Guardiola has been rotating his forwards a lot and it's hard to predict who will make the front three for El Clásico, but Spain's all-time top scorer should be there. David Villa has already scored a stunner against Real Madrid this season and he's the club's second best scorer this season alongside Cesc Fabregas with nine goals.
He'll be looking to further boost his big match record with a great performance at the Bernabeu.
RW: Alexis Sanchez
Under normal conditions, Pedro would be a lock to start, but his injury means that his fitness is still questionable and Alexis Sanchez is very likely to start. The Chilean winger might not be as much of a scoring threat as Pedro, but he's a superior dribbler who can provide width and give Real Madrid's full-backs a lot to think about.
He also has an extraordinary work rate and will track back and help Daniel Alves in defense.
CF: Lionel Messi
Nothing really needs to be said here. Lionel Messi is this generation's greatest player and has been the deciding factor in El Clásico matches in several occasions. With his 13 goals against Real Madrid (only five short of Di Stefano's record for goals in El Clásico), no goalkeeper has conceded more goals against Messi than Iker Casillas.
If Barcelona are to win on Saturday, Lionel Messi will be absolutely key as always.
Some Other Possibilities
-At the back, if Mascherano started ahead of Puyol, it wouldn't be a surprise.
-It is unlikely, but it's possible that Pep Guardiola fields a 3-4-3 formation, in which case either Abidal or Puyol/Mascherano would be dropped and Cesc Fabregas would play as an attacking midfielder.
-Cesc Fabregas might also eventually start, even in a 4-3-3, ahead of Villa or Sanchez, with Messi being moved to the wing and Cesc playing centrally as a false nine. That doesn't look very likely either, though.
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