It’s time again for the biggest match in Spanish football, and in recent times the biggest match in world football, to grace our screens again. Two of the most successful teams in the modern era will face off for national bragging rights, and in the case of Barcelona, a chance to stay in the title race. They’ve been struggling to hit a comfortable vein of form thus far, while Real Madrid have made an assertive start to the season and currently reside at the summit of the league with a gulf of 6 points between themselves and Barcelona. In most other leagues 6 points isn’t completely insurmountable, but in La Liga where only three teams really have a likely shot at winning the league, 6 points is a massive gulf. Barcelona have a chance to cut that lead down to only 3 points, but they’re facing a Madrid team that have surprisingly managed to address some of the recent flaws in their team dynamic and are playing confident football.
An interesting element of Madrid’s recent fortunes coincide with the appointment of Zinedine Zidane not too long ago. Usually when an ex-player of a club is appointed as a manager, it tends not to work out, as players aren’t always well suited to the managerial role. Zidane, however, has taken to the responsibility quite well, and he’s had to deal with some complex variables in that time. The most complex of which was what to do with Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo, although he won the European Championships with Portugal recently, has visibly weakened as the goal-scoring phenomenon that he has been for the last decade.
Madrid had become overly reliant on the Portuguese ace in the Ancelotti years, and while it provided a lot of success the team’s emphasis on Ronaldo began to diminish how much other players were able to contribute. Zidane has managed to deal with this problem almost perfectly, managing to keep Ronaldo content and part of the team while simultaneously shifting the emphasis from Ronaldo to a much more team-oriented game. Considering his recent introduction to the managerial arena this is quite an achievement, and something quite the opposite has been happening at the Nou Camp.
Barcelona, for the last few years, has been a sterling example of team football. The whole team, from goalkeeper to forward, contributes and enhances their possession-based game plan. They have typified the total football philosophy that expects each player to be competent on the ball and comfortable in all aspects of the game. However, just as Cristiano Ronaldo became the centrepiece of Madrid and began detracting from the contribution that his team-mates could make, Barcelona’s tactical set-up has required more and more individual effort from their own talisman, Lionel Messi.
Under Pep Guardiola a few years ago, and under current manager Luis Enrique two seasons ago, the Blaugrana were a very competent unit, the individual talent in players like Neymar, Messi and Suarez was brought to the fore because of the team’s chemistry, and showed a very solid understanding between one another. Lately, however, the entire team seems to be treading water and going through the motions and depend heavily on Messi’s brilliance to win them games, which doesn’t bode well for their upcoming match against Real Madrid.
Barcelona are currently incorporating new, young additions to the team; Lucas Digne, Samuel Umtiti, Andre Gomes, and Paco Alcacer. These players need to take the mantel up from the aging stalwarts they’ll be replacing in the coming years: Javier Mascherano, Andres Iniesta and Luis Suarez. In this transitional phase some growing pains are inevitable, but as a team they’re struggling to bridge the gap between the experienced players and the newcomers, making their performances inconsistent and putting extra pressure on their front three, particularly Messi, to bail them out with solo efforts.
Messi vs. Marcelo: Marcelo has been in exceptionally good form for Los Blancos. At left back his contributions have been equal both in attack and defence; locking out opposing wide players in his own half and providing brilliant link up play and crosses for his team mates in the opposition half. Since Barcelona have required Messi to be at his best in order to get points this season, Marcelo vigilantly following Messi is likely to make it difficult for Barca to register too many attempts at the Madrid goal.
Luka Modric vs. Sergio Busquets: A large of Madrid’s fast transitioning and passing into the forwards comes from their energetic midfield. Usually manned by the likes of Casemiro, Modric, Kovacic or Kroos, Madrid’s
midfield offers a lot more dynamism and energy than Barcelona’s. None of these midfielders is more important than Modric, the Croatian is extremely capable at carrying the ball from midfield and creating chances for Madrid’s forward’s.
Neymar vs. Danilo: Neymar has been struggling for goals lately but he’s been creating chances for teammates with great efficiency. Due to Barcelona’s focus on their front three creating and converting their own chances it will be crucial for Neymar to run at Danilo as often as possible, Marcelo’s fellow Brazilian full back hasn’t been as comfortable at the back as Zidane may want. If Carvajal starts in Danilo’s place it would be a wise move from Zidane as Carvajal offers more defensive solidity at the expense of some attacking flair.
In the past Barcelona vs. Real Madrid matches typified the team ethic against the individual’s flair. Barcelona’s possession-based short game often outmatched Madrid’s inclination to emphasise their star players such as Ronaldo or Gareth Bale. Strangely, though, those roles have recently been reversed, with Barcelona becoming increasingly and problematically dependent on their big name players while Madrid are functioning quite efficiently as a solid unit.
Unfortunately for Barcelona their form of late has featured too many mistakes and they’ve come across as lethargic, neither of which bode well for a match against the current European champions. Although Barcelona will host Madrid at the Nou Camp and enjoy their home support their quality of play will have to increase remarkably if they’re going to get anything more than a draw, Madrid’s energy may prove too much for Barcelona’s indifferent form to cope with.
Predicted Result: 1-3