EL CLASICO: Who will win the Battle of the Bernabeu?

Throughout the last there have been many great Clasicos, but none could be more decisive than the clash at the Bernabeu this weekend. The scenario is different to the last couple of years: Barcelona has been the team to beat; many have dubbed Pep Guardiola’s side the “greatest side of all time”. But the gap has been cut short, under Mourinho, Real Madrid have become a fierce some unit. Patient and dangerous in possession, they have mastered the art of counter attacking.

This season’s first clash could not be more influential in the La Liga race. Real sit 3 points clear, with a game in hand (a sure victory given Real’s current form) and a win could make it nine: a tremendously difficult task for Barcelona given the nature of La Liga with the top two hardly dropping points throughout a season. A Barcelona win will bring the back the points to square one. but a draw could be all that Madrid could be after, as it keep the status quo.

Back to the Clasico. How to play it? Which formation? Which players?

Guardiola’s biggest dilemma is whether to play three at the back: a 3-4-3. The aim is, as Guardiola put it: to maintain more possession, make the team more attacking and concede less. It has worked against lesser opposition at times, but playing with three at the back against a Real side running rampart is a dangerous and ambitious tactic. It would be sensible to assume that Guardiola will go with a four man backline – but which four if he goes with it?

Gerard Pique, Dani Alves and Eric Abidal are starters, but the problem lies with Carlos Puyol. Is he fit enough to start? Is he match ready? The other option would be Javier Mascherano, who has become a defender in nature now. Recent reports though indicate otherwise and that Puyol will start, but will it be a back three or four? Does that mean Mascherano should move into midfield? Given the rough nature of Madrid’s play, extra muscle in the midfield would be a benefit in battle to control the midfield. Yet, with Xavi and Iniesta both fit and healthy and Sergio Busquets the man to shield the defence, it seems that Mascherano might miss out – but expect him to make an appearance in some form.

Does David Villa deserve to make a start? Will Cesc Fabregas play the “false nine” role? And what about Lionel Messi?

Villa has been Barcelona’s fallen star this season. Hardly featuring in playing on the left side of the front three, he’s been replaced with new boy Alexis Sanchez. Who will start? Villa’s irregular form of late and lack of game time will point to a Sanchez start – the Chilean’s lack of Clasico experience will be factor. Can he handle the pressure? Guardiola will have to think hard about who should play on the left.

As for the central role and right wing, it looks like Guardiola is going to go for Cesc playing in the “false nine” role; the role that Messi has made famous over the last couple of years – a centre forward to drops deep to collect the ball, allowing players to drop into the space behind him but also to gain more possession of the ball. Cesc has played in this position this season and to great affect, as he’s scored seven league goals already. With Pedro out, Cesc is dead set for playing in that role. This means, Messi will probably be pushed to the right, where he started his Barcelona career. A Messi-Alves combination on the right wing is a dangerous duo that Madrid will have to contain – forcing Angel Di Maria, one of Real’s most influential players to defend more than he would like. The same applies to Ronaldo – it will be Sanchez’ job to make sure that Abidal isn’t left alone to face the Portuguese international.

Barcelona are unlikely to change their stripes, its pass and move for them; tiki-taka football. It’s down to Madrid to alter their system. Which formation will Mourinho use? Defend deep and counter or press high and take the game to Barcelona?

Aitor Karanka, Mourinho’s assistant stated in a press conference that Real will be lining up in a 4-3-3 formation, but who will play in the system? “We will play a 4-3-3, with Di Maria, Cristiano and ‘Pipa’ (Higuain) or Karim (Benzema)” said Karanka. The front line is settled, except for the central striking role: the faster Higuain build for the counter or the more technical Benzema able to play in tighter spaces? This is of course depends on how Mourinho wants his team to play.

With a three man midfield – most likely to be Xabi Alonso, Lass Diarra and Sami Khedira, who will provide steel, resolve and creativity (in which Alonso will be key) in the center of the pitch will result in Real having that ability to play in both a counter attacking game or a more possession game. It won’t come to a surprise if when Barcelona hold possession, Real will defend deep and play on the counter; in possession themselves, expect them to push higher and make Barcelona pay for it.

If Barcelona take the lead? What options should Mourinho use?

It would be difficult but not impossible for Real to claw its way back. They have the options available so expect, Kaka or Mesut Ozil come off the bench to provide that extra thrust. This is assuming that Barcelona score in the first place. Real’s defence has been an wall this season, mainly due to the new defensive partnership of Sergio Ramos and Pepe. Expect them to start with Alvaro Arbeloa to play on the right side. His pace and experience will be valuable in an effort stop Alves and Messi. It’s on the left that there is some issue: the attacking minded Marcelo or the adaptable Fabio Conentrao? The guess is that Mourinho will go for the more conservative Conentrao and if the game swings, he can adapt to other positions.

This is will one Clasico not to miss. The build up, the tension and the fact that this could affect the whole outcome of the La Liga race means that this is one of the most important games of the season. Its a little dramatic given that its a long way to go, but expect fireworks – through dangerous tackles, fouls galore and probably a couple of red cards – and plenty of goals. This is one of the games of the year.

Andrew Bishara

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