LaLiga: In-form Real Madrid, Barcelona seek Clasico win to further title ambitions
From a 10-point gap at the close of January, Atletico Madrid have seen their lead cut down by Real Madrid and Barcelona. A Clasico win would help the two's title ambitions further.
Only thrice since the turn of the century have neither Real Madrid nor Barcelona held the top spot in LaLiga for the second Clasico of the season. Real Madrid have come in as leaders seven times in the last 20 years and Barcelona 10 times. The other three instances have been: 2001-02 and 2003-04 season when Valencia led Real by a point and on goal difference respectively and the dramatic 2006-07 season when Sevilla were up on Barca by a point. Now, coming into Matchday 30, Atletico Madrid hold the top spot by a point over Barcelona and three points over city-rivals Real.
This game, hugely important to the league and clubs from a sporting and business standpoint, could have been just another fixture a couple of weeks back. At the end of January, Atletico Madrid led by 10 points and had a game in hand. Effectively, they were 13 points up, cruising along, toppling everyone in their way and on course for a 100-point league finish.
“We’re not in a position to win much,” said Barcelona manager Ronald Koeman then.
It is a very different picture now. Atletico have picked 12 out of 30 points in the last 10 games, suffering defeats against Levante and Sevilla while being held by Celta Vigo, Levante, Real Madrid and Getafe. In the same period, Barcelona have picked 25 points from 27 available to extend their unbeaten run going back to the start of December. Real Madrid have drawn twice and won their remaining seven games for 23 points from 27 available.
Away from the league also Atletico haven’t fared well. They went out of the Copa del Rey against Cornella at the beginning of the year and produced an insipid performance to exit in the Champions League at the hands of Chelsea. On the other hand, Real Madrid are in the quarter-finals of the Champions League (and took a big step forward with a 3-1 first leg win) and Barcelona have a Cup final to look forward to.
Win the Clasico and they would go top. Even if temporarily for a night. A draw would do that as well for Barca. A win or a draw would take Barcelona top for the first time since 20 June – 294 days ago. Real Madrid, the defending champions, would wrestle the throne, after 174 days, with a win.
In what looked done and dusted couple of weeks back, isn’t any more. ‘Hay Liga’ - as the saying goes – ‘there’s a league’!
Injuries in abundance
Both teams have had to keep adjusting their lineups and strategies owing to injuries to key players. Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane cannot count on his first-choice centre back pairing - Sergio Ramos, out with a left calf muscle sprain, and Raphael Varane, who tested COVID positive. In their place, Zizou has no choice but to go with Nacho Fernandez and Eder Militao. Also unavailable are Dani Carvajal, with Lucas Vasquez slotting into that spot, and Eden Hazard. The Belgian trained ahead of the Champions League fixture against Liverpool but wasn’t included in the squad.
Barcelona have lesser injury worries but have a tough decision to make. Gerard Pique, who brings out his best in Clasicos, is included in the travelling party to Valdebebas. However, Koeman has a difficult call to make on his inclusion. The veteran had been out with a knee injury that was aggravated by a torn ACL in November. Even if he doesn’t play, Pique’s presence will motivate the squad.
Another player included in the squad and coming after a long injury absence is Sergi Roberto. He ruptured his right hamstring and hasn’t played in four months.
Not making the trip are long term casualties in Philippe Coutinho, Ansu Fati and Neto.
Little room for change
With the absentees out of the way, let’s focus on the ones likely to feature on Saturday night in the Spanish capital.
For Zidane, and lesser so for Koeman, a consideration will also be for the game ahead. Real Madrid travel to Anfield next week for the second leg. Barca, however, have a week before the Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao in Seville.
Vinicius Jr., who scored a brace, was asked how tired he was, “On a scale of 1-10? I would give myself a 10.” Zidane, who was reportedly on the verge of the exit door a couple of weeks back, unfortunately, has little room for changes from the side that triumphed against Liverpool. For him, the decision will be whether to stick to his strong team or make changes at Anfield instead.
If he does decide to ring in the changes now, Vinicius could make way for Rodrygo in attack alongside Karim Benzema. The 33-year-old Benzema has 18 league goals and has found the net for seven straight games. Another possible change could come in midfield with Isco or Federico Valverde coming in. Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Casemiro remain certainties to start. Another option is at left back with Marcelo a candidate to replace Ferland Mendy if needed.
At Camp Nou, Koeman has turned his and the club’s fate around – on the pitch at least. After a loss to Cadiz in December, Barcelona were ninth and had won four and lost four. It appeared the club were in turmoil on and off the pitch. Since then, Barca have picked 51 points from available 57 and Joan Laporta is back as club president to try and revive a rocking ship. Much like what Koeman has done on the pitch.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) April 10, 2021
The Dutchman has experimented, tried different formations and players, and been flexible when he’s lost key players. The 4-2-3-1 formation early on has become 4-3-3 and sometimes three at the back in the form of Oscar Mingueza, Clement Lenglet and Frenkie de Jong. Ronald Araujo has been equally excellent. Up the pitch, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets have found a new lease of life playing alongside the exciting 18-year-old Pedri and 20-year-old Sergino Dest.
In attack, Lionel Messi, who was on the cusp of forcing his way out, is the Pichichi with 23 goals and 16 from his last 13 games. He will partner Ousmane Dembele up front whose pace will make life very difficult for a makeshift Real Madrid defence. Antoine Griezmann remains an uncertain piece to this puzzle depending on whether Koeman keeps four at the back.
As far as storylines under the surface go, this could well be Messi’s last Clasico. And Ramos may have already played his last earlier in the season. Both are out of contract in the summer and a new destination won’t be a surprise. Ramos has played the most Clasicos (45) and if all goes well, Messi will equal it on Saturday. When the next Clasico comes around, whenever it may be in this crazy coronavirus pandemic affected world, the two club captains could be gone. Yet we cling on to the past in hope, much like Laporta with his plans for the club.
“I hope he doesn’t go,” Zidane said for Ramos. “I hope he doesn’t either,” Zidane said when asked about Messi.
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