After finding out that they’d be facing Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals on Friday, Real Madrid get the ball rolling on a tough set of fixtures when they travel east to Barcelona.
Over the past season or two, Clasico’s fierceness and the violent nature that goes with it, has been rather subdued. On some part due to the characters involved and on the other that things have become less heated and more respect come in. But this time around, with one point separating the two (Barcelona lead with 65 points) and pressure on Real Madrid to perform growing more than before, it could very well become heated and revert to its usual nature.
PROBLEMS AT START OF 2015
The 230th Clasico in the making has more to win for Real Madrid than it does for Barcelona. Los Blancos have had a poor calendar year after going 22 games unbeaten with lowest point coming at home to Schalke in the second leg of the last 16 of the Champions League. Barcelona, on the other hand, started the year with administrative problems after Andoni Zubizarreta was sacked as Sporting Director and his second-in-command Carles Puyol also going out in solidarity. That was followed by Lionel Messi and Neymar missing training due to stomach bugs which in all honesty is cover-up for bigger problems at hand. There were strong accusations of Luis Enrique and Messi being at logger heads over how the Argentine is being used by the former Real Madrid and Barcelona player.
Fast-forward to now and Barcelona are in sublime form. The Catalans have won nine out of ten with Malaga getting a rare double over them. So much so, they’re in the chance to finish with three trophies but won’t be easy as they face PSG in the Champions League next and Athletic Bilbao in the Copa final.
Compare that to Madrid and the fact that Florentino Perez had to address the media and clarify that Carlo Ancelotti’s job is safe (and amongst other topics) says how bad the things have become. From a case of ‘no one can beat this Real Madrid side’ in December, we’ve gone to ‘there is little confidence in this Madrid team’. After the debacle of Schalke, Real won 2-0 against Levante with Gareth Bale, one of the BBC and under attack for not scoring goals and ruing chances, getting both.
The biggest doubt from either side is Sergio Busquets. The midfielder missed the midweek second leg against Manchester City and didn’t train the subsequent day. Speaking to the press on Saturday, Enrique confirmed he isn’t 100% but ‘will be there’. It remains to be seen if he will start or come on from the bench.
For Madrid, there aren’t any injury concerns or omissions despite having Toni Kroos and Isco on four yellow cards each. Luka Modric, a big and important piece of the puzzle, returned two weeks back where he played half an hour against Schalke and 70 odd minutes against Levante. Him and Kroos will have a difficult job of containing a well-oiled MSN (Messi, Suarez and Neymar).
Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t in the greatest of form even though his brace ensured progress against Schalke and he was involved in the two goals against Levante. His attitude and body language by the end of the win against Levante said all that he was feeling. Ronaldo, although accustomed to the bad press, has had more reasons for doubts this time. He was pictured enjoying himself at his birthday party on the back of a 0-4 loss at the Calderon and then last week he told the media that he won’t speak until the end of the season. Although, a broody Cristiano may just be what Real Madrid need: one eager to prove critics and doubters wrong.
Lionel Messi is in stupendous form going into the game. One could argue that this has been the best form he’s ever been in even though 2011 comes very close too. His dribbling skills and eye to pick out a teammate has gone up a level that makes Kroos’ job a lot tougher. Though Madrid fans can take solace in the fact that the German has retrieved the most number of balls.
Suarez and Neymar The other two members of the Barcelona trifecta take a step back when Messi turns on the magic but this doesn’t mean they are playing in his shadow. Both are very good at riling opponents up and winning free kicks in dangerous positions. If and when they make progress towards the box with wingers on the side (Jordi Alba being the prime concern), Dani Carvajal and Marcelo/Coentrao need to be on top of their game.
Karim Benzema Frenchman’s skills will be crucial to make Barcelona’s life difficult. With Busquets likely to not play or if he plays, then not at 100%, Enrique will have to make a few changes in how he approaches things. On Wednesday, Barcelona lined up with Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Mathieu and Alba as back four and Ivan Rakitic playing with Javier Mascherano. That may very well continue as it seems unlikely that Marc Batra will get a start. Mascherano would be preferred at the back but in Busi’s absence, this will have to do for Enrique’s men. This possibly gives Real, and Benzema, the chance to go at Pique who is slowest of the lot.
Even though I would like a Madrid win, the team isn’t as good together at the moment to upsurge this Barcelona side. The 2-0 Levante win did bring back some cheers but it still wasn’t enough to clear all doubts for a game of this magnitude. I go for a 3-1 Barcelona win at the Camp Nou.