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El Clasico: The Factors Which Will Decide Barcelona vs. Real Madrid
In recent years when Barcelona have met Real Madrid, they have had the upper hand going into the Clasico. Things are different this time around.
Los Blancos are six points ahead of Barcelona, and a victory at the Camp Nou on Saturday afternoon would stretch that lead to a cavernous nine.
Zinedine Zidane noted the change of positions in his press conference ahead of the game.
“I think tomorrow will be a completely different game to last season,” he said, referring to Madrid’s 2-1 win over Barcelona at the Camp Nou on April 2.
“We were, if you’ll excuse me, arriving with our backsides clenched and now things are different.”
So different in fact that while Madrid smashed Barcelona’s 39-game unbeaten streak then, it is Barcelona who now are aiming to do the same to Madrid, who have gone 32 matches on the trot without defeat.
These games, between two of the world’s best three teams, are decided by factors great and small. Here we analyse where this game will be won and lost.
Real Madrid have been marching onwards, racking up victories even though they have not played particularly well, with the exception of the 3-0 win over Atletico Madrid in the derby clash at the Vicente Calderon on Nov. 19. That is a skill in itself, one which championship titles are built on.
Clasicos feature many of the world’s best players, with Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suarez and Cristiano Ronaldo arguably the world’s top four—not in any particular order.
Entire teams could be built around any of those men, while the likes of Luka Modric, Marcelo, Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique are also phenomenal talents. There is a reason the world tunes in for Clasico clashes, with elite stars going at it hammer and tongs for 90 brutal minutes.
But while Real Madrid haven’t been playing that well and succeeding, Barcelona haven’t been playing that well and have suffered for it.
The Catalans come into this game seeming a little lost. They were outplayed by Real Sociedad last weekend, not the first time that has happened recently—both Manchester City and Sevilla dominated them for long periods.
Barcelona lost against Pep Guardiola’s City and drew with la Real, Hercules and Malaga, while even their victories over Granada and Celtic have not seen them hit top gear.
Pique, among other players, has been self-critical, which is the first step to sorting out any deficiencies.
He told Movistar Plus after the draw with Sociedad, h/t MailOnline:
It's not often I can say this as a Barca player but we have to be pleased with the draw. Sometimes you can win a game while losing your style of play but when you don't have the right attitude it's more worrying.
Almost nothing went right for us today. They outdid us in the quality of their play and in attitude. We barely existed in the first half and improved a bit in the second but it's difficult to win the league playing like this.
Then there are the tactical twists each manager could put on the game. Both lineups are set in stone, bar a couple of positions.
Zidane must decide if he picks defensive midfielder Casemiro or creative talent Isco. Then he also has to make a call on if Pepe is ready to play in a game of this intensity after injury or if he will stick with Raphael Varane.
The ace up his sleeve—the 4-4-1-1 formation he used against Atletico—has been taken away from him by Bale’s injury. Now he will have to use Ronaldo on the left and Benzema up front.
Luis Enrique could use the 3-4-3 lineup he has deployed on occasion but is much more likely to stick to the 4-3-3 tactic he generally favours. His doubt is whether Samuel Umtiti can step in to replace Javier Mascherano after his own injury problems.
One player who will be back is Andres Iniesta, missing for over a month, who finally received his medical clearance to play on Friday. Without him, Barcelona’s results have worsened considerably.
His former partner in crime, Barcelona legend Xavi Hernandez, does not care for form, however. The midfielder, now plying his trade for Al Sadd in Qatar, says recent results are irrelevant because clashes between Barcelona and Madrid are unpredictable affairs.
"Clasicos are different games," he told Cadena COPE radio station. "You can be 20 points away from Real Madrid and play a great game, or they can, it doesn't signify anything that Barcelona were not good at Anoeta."
And that brings us to…
However much quality is on the pitch, luck plays a big part. The bad luck, for example, that has ruled two of Real Madrid’s star players out of action. Bale and Toni Kroos will not play because of injury.
But if Lucas Vazquez, who is in line to replace the Welshman, ends up helping to shackle Neymar down the left, bad luck could turn into good luck.
Then there is the referee: Carlos Clos Gomez. Madrid newspaper ASbelieve Barcelona have an advantage with him in charge, writing: “Barcelona have never lost a game when referee Clos Gomez has been officiating, while Real Madrid have lost four with him in the middle. Will his presence give Barca a psychological edge?”
The answer is no, probably not, but it doesn’t stop idle speculation from the media. Regardless of this, the officiating team can have a big impact on the game. If they are lenient, it will give the advantage to the more aggressive side; if they are pernickety then the flow of the game will be broken up.
Curiously, for the first time in years, that might suit Barcelona more than Madrid.
There is no goal-line technology in Spain and as we saw last weekend when Carlos Vela’s strike hit the bar and came down, possibly over Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s line—we will never know for sure, but the goal was not given—that could be the difference between a win and a draw or a draw and a defeat.
Even after the ball bounced down off the woodwork, Juanmi followed up to score but his strike was incorrectly ruled offside. That gap could be seven points instead of six.
At the end of the long, hot summer, Barcelona looked back at what they had done and were satisfied. They signed six players to bolster the squad, spending a total of €122 million, and most agreed they had bought the right men for the right positions. But over a third of the way through the season, there are doubts appearing.
Only one of the new players has forced his way into the side when it is at full-strength, French centre-back Umtiti. And even he has suffered injury problems, with the latest making him touch-and-go for the Clasico.
Others, like Lucas Digne, have played several games but not shown enough to convince the coach that he is better than the option he already had in Jordi Alba.
Of course all of these players are expected to continue developing over the season, as well as providing instant competition for the first team, so none of them can be written off, and sporting director Robert Fernandez would say perhaps the only surprise is that Umtiti is doing quite so well.
But when it comes to this weekend, it would be a surprise to see any of them start. Umtiti depending on his injury, the others because they have not earned it.
Curiously Madrid have gone the opposite way this season. Usually they are the team that spends their way through the summer but with the exception of some minor deals and the purchase of Alvaro Morata from Juventus using their re-buy option, Florentino Perez did not put his hand in his pocket.
And even though Zidane was hoping for more reinforcements, the situation called for him to give chances to the team’s squad players, and they are delivering superbly. Vazquez is perhaps the best example, with the winger standing in when required for one of the star attacking trio of Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema and almost always performing to a high level.
Madrid see this as a chance to strike a brutal blow on their rivals, earning revenge for the 4-0 Barcelona stuck on them last season at the Bernabeu. The 2-1 win at the Camp Nou was cathartic and sent Madrid on a run to the Champions League final, but ultimately it did not make the Catalans suffer. But they also see this as the chance to give a death sentence to Barcelona’s title hopes, or as much of one that can be given at this stage of the season.
Barcelona have won six Liga titles in eight years. Madrid have not won one since 2012. That will weigh on them going into the game.
Barcelona meanwhile must use Anoeta as a pivot like before, in January 2015. They lost, were thrown into crisis and came out swinging, thrashing Atletico Madrid, regaining a foothold and winning the treble. Win this and Barcelona will have renewed confidence, knowing Madrid have to endure the long-haul Japan trip for the Club World Cup, which will see them suffer after Christmas.