LaLiga: First El Clasico of season between Barcelona and Real Madrid to be won or lost in midfield
Barcelona and Real Madrid come into the Clasico with 35 points for both teams. Catalans sit top courtesy better goal difference but it would count for nought come end of the season.
Barcelona and Real Madrid square off at Camp Nou on Wednesday night on the backdrop of expected political protests
The game was originally scheduled to be played in October but was postponed following protests over Catalan independence
Both teams have a strong midfield and would need it to excel for bolstering either side of the pitch
Up until Jornada 10, LaLiga seemed to be going a different way in comparison to the previous few seasons. The dominance of Real Madrid, Barcelona for the top spot had been questioned and the gap at the top was little. Newly-promoted and smaller of the Andalusian teams in Granada occupied the top spot. They were leading the Primera Division for the first time in 46 years! As a football fan, you felt giddy, you hoped for some sort of fairytale to happen — much like the Leicester City of Premier League or Deportivo La Coruña in 2000.
But a week later, the duo scored five goals each against Leganes and Real Valladolid to make it one-two battle once again.
You win, I win. You draw, I draw. That has been the theme to things ever since. When Barcelona slipped at Levante (losing 3-1), Real Madrid were held to a stalemate by Betis. Four wins later for both, Barca were once again the first to drop points. Real Sociedad denied Barca all three points at Anoeta while Real Madrid needed a 95th-minute goal from Karim Benzema to get something from Mestalla.
Now we come to the big one. It was scheduled for 26 October but was postponed due to protests in Barcelona following sentences handed out to political leaders as part of the independence referendum. La Liga wished it to be played on 4 December but the clubs' agreed date, and that ratified by Spanish FA, of 18 December, stuck.
16 matches played, 35 points apiece but Barcelona sit top thanks to a better goal difference — which at the end of the season counts for nothing. In Spain, the head-to-head is the tiebreaker if two teams finish on points. Where Barca have scored 43 goals, Real have tallied 33. At the back, Barca have let in 20 goals while Madrid have conceded 12. This stat highlights the major strengths and concerns for both teams.
Barcelona have a strong forward line and can get goals aplenty with Lionel Messi on 12, Luis Suarez on 9 and Antoine Griezmann on 6. Real Madrid have put their faith squarely in Benzema to get goals. He has 12 with defender Sergio Ramos the next best at 3.
In defence, Barcelona have looked shoddy throughout the season and have lacked the solidity that is needed. For the fixture tonight, Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet make up the centre back pairing with Sergi Roberto likely to occupy the right side. Jordi Alba, fit once again, is expected to come in at left-back and provide the attacking threat with his galloping runs and off the ball movement provide.
For Real, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane will take shape at centre back, Dani Carvajal at right-back. The left-back slot remains up for grabs with Marcelo injured. Zinedine Zidane could bring in Ferland Mendy who is once again available following suspension, or stick to Nacho Fernandez. Mendy would be a smarter guess considering his ability to whip in neat crosses and solid defensive skills.
Midfield dictates play, it dictates flow from back to forward and most importantly, the tempo of the game. The game will be won or lost by the team which does well in the midfield. Barcelona are expected to have three in the middle: Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong. Messi and Suarez can drop in deep if the situation demands, leaving Griezmann for the counter-attacking moves which are a strong possibility with this Real Madrid side, which can be caught out between the lines.
Another option is to have Griezmann hug the touchline with Suarez becoming the goal-scoring threat in the middle and Messi playing as the number 10.
Alba, if he plays, also provides an option to run in on the wings with Messi's clinical through balls or chips to keep Carvajal busy. Alba then has what it takes to provide neatly struck cutbacks for the attackers to slot home.
Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Federico Valverde and Casemiro could all come in and form the playing XI with either a 4-4-2 or 4-3-2-1 style helped by the attacking options in Benzema and Rodrygo. Modric and Kroos had started the season, not in the fittest of shapes or with the sharpest of football on the pitch but as things have progressed, they've improved. This has shown in how Real have played their football as well. What is important is to keep that level high in order to put the pressure on Barcelona. At Valencia, Real started well, moved the ball around quickly but fizzled as it drew forward.
Other formations could be a 4-1-3-2 with Modric, Kroos and Valverde in midfield, Casemiro the linkup between defence and midfield with Rodrygo and Benzema upfront. It appears unlikely that Zidane would start with Vinicius Jr. or Gareth Bale. When asked about the Welshman (again) in the buildup to the fixture, Zidane said he was someone who was training well and "an important player" without dwelling on his chances of getting a second start since early October.
If Zidane were to be bolder, he could play a 4-1-2-3 with Casemiro doing the dirty, mopping up work behind Kroos and Modric/Valverde with Isco, Benzema and Rodrygo starting.
For all the permutations and combinations, Casemiro being a part of the playing XI is a certainty and his role extremely important — a fact established further by the Brazilian getting to warm the bench at Valencia in order to not get suspended for the Clasico.
There are quite a few options for both Zidane and Ernesto Valverde to explore for the first Clasico of the season. If things hold up with how LaLiga has turned out this season, it could matter a whole lot by Jornada 38!
El Clasico will be live on Facebook on 19th December from 12:30 AM IST onwards.
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