Partido; Barcelona – Real Madrid
Estadio; Camp Nou
El Clasico needs no introduction. The beauty of this age-old rivalry is its sustained tendency to pit together two teams usually in very different ends of the success spectrum. Barca are coming into this game in red-hot form, riding a 17-3-0 record in their last 20 matches and are seeking revenge for the humiliating pasilo of last season. Madrid on the other hand are simply longing for redemption. In seemingly permanent crisis-mode for most of the season, an unlikely win here would temporarily paper over the institutional cracks that threaten to completely derail our season. Barcelona have put out two statements with crushing wins over Sevilla and Valencia – making a mockery out of the “Grand Slam, the Queen's Stage, the Perfect Storm, and the Month of Misery”. They’ve rolled over two of their main rivals with eccentric ease, scoring 7 goals and conceding zero. In contrast, Madrid are in indifferent form, and come into this game on the back of a heart-breaking 4-3 loss at home to Sevilla. In a rivalry as intense as this one, form may not count for much. Both sets of fans can sit back and enjoy two top teams giving 100% in their quest for supremacy.
1. Start Fast. Real Madrid habitually lack concentration in the first 10 minutes of football matches (we saw this again tonight with Sevilla scoring after only four minutes), which will be a huge problem on the road in Barcelona. This will be interesting because Barca use early blitz tactics in games, they lead the league in goals scored during the first 15 minutes and Madrid concedes the first goal 50% of the time. This doesn’t bode well for Real at all but perhaps the intense pressure of the match will engage their concentration from the first minute. Barca will come out of the blocks flying and look for the early cushion to demoralize Madrid.
2. Give Messi plenty of touches. Leo’s penchant for big plays is unmatched anywhere in World Football, and at 21 he already has an astonishing pedigree in El Clasico matchups -- with two marquee displays at the Bernabeu and a hat-trick at the Camp Nou under his belt. He is primed for another huge night here, especially with the returning Heinze deprived of double coverage help from the injured Diarra. After torching Sevilla the previous week, Messi didn’t really come to the fore against Valencia - but you can expect Xavi and co. to use him as their go-to guy in El Clasico. Messi will need his touches, the more the merrier, which will constantly draw Madrid’s backline out of position, leading for increased chances for Eto’o and Henry.
3. Pressure from the frontline/tactical discipline. Barca have been putting in some terrific shifts the last couple of months without the ball. Their energy levels and general fitness are very impressive, and this allows them to use a speedy/physical pressing game that prevents the opposition from affording any meaningful time on the ball. It is a team effort which starts with the forwards (Henry and Eto’o), filters through to the entire midfield and even the fullbacks, in particular Alves, tuck inside to apply relentless pressure in an attempt to recover the ball as soon as possible. Real have trouble dominating mid-table teams, so it shouldn’t be difficult for Barca to quite comfortably force Madrid turnovers, recover the ball and effectively control the game. The absence of Diarra enables Toure to give them a physical edge. Barca also have the best defense in the league, allowing only 9 goals, but this unit needs to be alert with Madrid possessing pace on the break. Pep has to emphasise tactical discipline to mask their offensive eagerness - otherwise Madrid may find themselves with several 3-on-3 or 4-on-2 situations.
1. Stop Xavi. Barcelona move the ball with tremendous speed and always have at least two or three outlets available, such is their dynamic movement off the ball. Madrid get a break here with Iniesta out injured, who is one of their key manipulators of space. Still, Barca’s depth allows them to field Thierry Henry who is coming off a hat-trick in their last game and appears rejuvenated. Xavi’s ability to read the game, manage the offense and keep things simple and smooth is impeccable; Henry and Messi are elite playmakers that rely on Xavi’s constant stream of passes. This supply must be cut off, or at least, disturbed to a significant extent. Gago should be assigned to hound Xavi into mistakes and/or forced passes. Gago has fantastic energy and is arguably the best tackler in La Liga, Madrid will need all his resources to prevent Xavi from stamping his authority in this contest.
2. Defend DEEP - do not attempt to defend higher up the pitch. Schuster needs to get his tactics spot on in this game. If Madrid starts to defend higher up the pitch they don’t stand a chance due to the mismatch of their available defenders (Pepe out) against Barca’s athletic offence. Eto’o and Henry's pure speed, agility and athletic ability make them impossible to stop on the ground over a longer distance one-on-one against Salgado and Cannavaro - who are on the wrong side of 30 and have been declining physically for some time. Defending higher up the pitch against speedy forwards like Henry, Eto’o and Messi is suicidal - throughballs will split the defense and their pace will rip the Madrid backline to shreds. So, the defense must drop deep when Barca advances with the ball, reducing the available space for the opposition strikers to run onto. This allows Cannavaro and Salgado to recover over a shorter distance - and Casillas to play as a sweeper (one of his outstanding strengths). Gago, Guti and Sneijder must cover the space a quarter into their territory vacated by the defense.
3. Go toe-to-toe. This might sound a bit of a stretch against the best team in the World right now -- but what good is camping in your own box against the most dangerous offense for 90 minutes? Madrid need to be confident, compact, resilient and above all else - believe in themselves. Barca will of course enjoy more of the possession, their passing game is excellent and they will have the support of 100,000 Catalans belting their hearts out. But that doesn’t mean Madrid have to hide - whenever Real have the ball they need to become economic, value it and not be afraid to express themselves. Sneijder and Guti will have to protect the football and operate like NFL quarterbacks looking to connect with their wide receivers (Higuain and Robben). Daniel Alves likes to quarterback the Barca team himself, so Madrid may get some joy with Robben down the left-hand side. Real needs a huge game from , a couple of dangerous runs early on will force Alves to ping back in his own half and that takes away a key element in Barca’s offense. Real can only absorb pressure for so long before conceding - so it is important that they do not invite too many attacks from the home team.