With Real Madrid and Barcelona set to meet in El Clasico on Saturday evening, Spanish football expert and columnist, Guillem Balague, previews the match, looks at the key factors and considers how significant the outcome will be in the title race.
Injuries and selection dilemmas
Messi has been training with the group since Thursday, which means he is available and should travel. Nobody expects otherwise. The problem is that he has been out for 54 days and Barcelona have done well in his absence with seven victories, one draw and one defeat. My guess would be that he starts on the bench – why risk him?
This is not a title decider and Messi has matured enough to realise the long-term benefits of coming back slowly from injury. Elsewhere for Barcelona, Rafinha is out for most of the season and Ivan Rakitic is doubtful.
For Real Madrid, the good news is that Bale and Ronaldo have not been away with their national sides and nor has Sergio Ramos, who has a painful shoulder injury. He gets painkillers before games and that limits him a bit, but he will play.
Real Madrid vs Barcelona: November 21, 2015, 5:00pm
Karim Benzema is the only doubt. He trained very well in the week but he has been out for longer than expected and it would be a bit risky to play him, so he might be on the bench, which is a serious problem for Real as he is crucial in attack.
Benitez has to decide if he plays Isco and also James, who has played with the national side but is maybe not 100 per cent. I think Real Madrid will play 4-4-2 with Bale and Cristiano up front and Isco, Kroos, Casemiro and Modric in midfield.
Formation and tactics
Without Messi, Barca have tried different formations – 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 – and I think they will, depending what happens with Rakitic, still have three forwards. That would mean Munir El Haddadi could play up front with Suarez and Neymar. When he has played he has worked hard and that’s what Luis Enrique is asking for from him.
Mascherano is back so he will partner Pique in defence and Busquets, who has been fantastic, will be in front of them, with Claudio Bravo in goal.
Real Madrid need to find a balance between forwards that don’t defend too much and a midfield that gets over-exposed if that happens. Benzema is not 100 per cent and he is absolutely crucial to gel the players up front – to make Ronaldo and Bale better with the one-twos and runs to create space. If he does not start that means adding another midfielder which could make life difficult for Barcelona.
The line of pressure will be key. If Benitez feels that Real Madrid have got the physical strength they will pressure high for a few seconds to make life tough in the build-up for Barcelona.
Then they have to be very disciplined if Barca beat that line of pressure, to run back and be organised in the last third. That’s the key for Real Madrid. A lot of the time they won’t have the ball and they have to be disciplined and work hard – that includes Bale and Ronaldo.
Real will try to take advantage of the recurrent weakness of Barcelona from set pieces, especially from the wings.
There are many all over the place. I love the Sergio Ramos v Luis Suarez battle. They are both physical, clever and constant in their presence at either end of the pitch.
But I think the key one will be on the right-hand side of Barcelona between Dani Alves and Marcelo. Marcelo is under-appreciated by some but he is one of the most creative players Real Madrid have – sometimes the most creative. Now he is matured, balanced, has worked hard on his game offensively and defensively and he feels he has a huge part to play.
Dani Alves is not the same player he was two or three years ago. He makes mistakes when he covers, especially when the ball is on the other side of the pitch, and when he goes forward, which he does less frequently, he leaves space which Busquets and others have to cover. Those attacks from Marcelo down the left, helped by the midfielders or Ronaldo, could make life very difficult for Alves.
What is the media saying?
The feeling is that Barcelona have got a team that has clicked. They have only conceded one goal in the last six. Neymar and Suarez have ensured they haven’t missed Messi, Busquets has been brilliant and Messi could play in the second half.
By contrast, there is an impression that Real Madrid are in a bad way, not playing well and are too defensive (more on that later, as I think that is a harsh judgment of the reality of the team).
How important is the game in the title race?
We have seen with the defeat of Real Madrid to Sevilla or Barcelona to Celta Vigo that there are teams who can take points from the top two, so I don’t think the result in the Clasico is as key as in other years.
Teams are getting stronger and know how to beat them. The winner gets affected less than the loser. With the loser there is a drama created in the media – more than anywhere else – and there are question marks that put things in doubt. It’s not so much the effect on the title race but the immediate reaction to a defeat.
Does Rafa Benitez need a victory to win over the fans?
There is a very strange campaign in the media against Benitez, which means he has been judged before the case has been presented fully. He has only been able to play his best XI in two games – the 5-0 against Betis and the 6-0 against Espanyol.
If they had everyone available they would have won everything, I am convinced. It’s just a few strange things are happening, such as against Sporting Gijon when they had 20 shots but didn’t score with Benzema missing, while Ronaldo had five shots against Malaga but didn’t score.
Generally, everybody is calling the team defensive. I can tell you that there are one or two players who feel it is very defensive. Perhaps Ronaldo feels that way, but he should look at himself too as he has only been scoring in one third of his games and is not as effective as he used to be.
The fact that he doesn’t like to play No 9 suggests that he is not enjoying football as much as he used to, but he knows that Benitez asked for a striker and the club decided not to bring one. So he has to take one for the side. If Ronaldo is efficient, Real Madrid can beat anybody.
Yes, he has scored nearly as many goals as Suarez and Neymar in the league but they have come, as mentioned, in a third of the games even though he has had the most shots of any striker in Europe.
He hasn’t scored in the big games – PSG, Sevilla and Atletico – so I wonder if complaining about the team being defensive is a way of looking for excuses. There is no team that shoots more than Real Madrid, so it’s not really defensive, but the fact they have had so many injuries means they have not been able to play a regular XI or play with enough consistency.
Against Sevilla in the first half it was the best half they had played all season. They are not as bad as people are saying but the campaign means fans question Benitez. And anyway, in the Clasico, the form goes out of the window.
Nobody wants to criticise the president, Florentino Perez, who has designed this unbalanced squad. Benitez asked for a striker and now Ronaldo has to be the striker. Perez did not think it was a good idea to sign one. Everybody knows the problems but, as we know, the weakest link is always the coach. The Clasico should show that Real Madrid are not as bad as people say.
By the way, it is false that Ronaldo has complained to the president that “with this coach we will win nothing”. Or that the captains have met the coach to ask him to be more offensive. It is, I believe, a campaign to undermine the coach and give reasons to players to leave the club in the near future.
It’s always a difficult game to call but, even though I am bad at predictions, I think it will be a high-scoring draw.
Source: Sky Sports