The José Mourinho – Pep Guardiola headline and the Lionel Messi – Cristiano Ronaldo headline have been covered and written many times over, so this preview of El Clásico will try to avoid these subjects and focus on the other, less talked about aspects of the biggest game in Spanish football this season.
The man in the middle of the fray will be Eduardo Iturralde González, the dentist from Bilbao, who will referee his third Clásico and his second at the Camp Nou. Those who watch Spanish football on a regular basis know Iturralde’s penchant for handing out multiple cards not necessarily because they were warranted but because of his overt need to control the match. For visual proof, watch Iturralde González give Nikola Zigic a yellow card here in one of the longest booking sessions in the history of football.
Normally, the referees that are given this match are the most highly rated in Spain, as indicated by the last the ten Clásicos being overseen by only three referees: Manuel Mejuto González, Alberto Undiano Mallenco, and Luís Medina Cantalejo. Mejuto González retired in the summer and Medina Cantalejo the summer before, so while Undiano Mallenco will most likely take charge of the Clásico in the Santiago Bernabéu in April, someone else had to take charge of the other Clásico.
If there were any refereeing new blood to throw into the Clásico fire, it would have been Carlos Velasco Carballo, who refereed his first matches in the UEFA Champions League group stage this season and has been praised by UEFA and the RFEF for his refereeing competency, but Eduardo Iturralde González got the call because of his experience refereeing this match.
Madridistas have long cried that Iturralde González harbored pro-Barça sympathies, and while these claims have little to no substance, they show the still-fractious regionalism that continues to exist in this somewhat more unified Spain as well as the almost life-or-death meaning of El Clásico with both the Merengues and the Culés.
Now to the players. While Barcelona will have to devise more than a couple of strategies to limit Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuaín’s contributions, Sergio Busquets and the central defensive pairing of Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué will deal with the two new additions to the attacking midfield, Ángel di María and Mesut Özil, and their abilities to create for Real’s scoring duo and to outpace the relatively slow defensive four, save for Dani Alves. Kaká, Rafael van der Vaart, Marcelo and Guti roamed the same areas last season that di María and Özil currently occupy, and they could not force or guile their way through Barça’s underrated defensive shield.
While Ángel di María and Cristiano Ronaldo switch wings from time to time, di María usually bombs down the left wing, which means he will come against Dani Alves for most of the match. This battle will be vital for their respective clubs because if di María can continually threaten Barcelona’s final third, that means that Alves has to be more of a stay-at-home fullback, and his important contributions to Barça’s attack will be limited. If di María is ineffective, Alves will have the freedom to act as the right wingback that suits his abilities best, and he will create space for Messi, David Villa, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, etc. to retain possession and pry Spain’s best defense more often.
Mesut Özil has made the normally demanding Madridistas almost forget about the second most expensive transfer in football history, €65 million and currently injured Kaká. Kaká was the central focus of the imperious attack at AC Milan, and when he brought his talents to the Santiago Bernabéu, little did he know that Florentino Pérez would sign Cristiano Ronaldo two days later to the largest transfer fee ever at €94 million. Kaká never really fit in to Manuel Pellegrini’s system, and injuries hampered Kaká from ever fully integrating into the Real starting eleven.
With successful surgery on his left knee this past summer, Real faced four to six months without him, so new trainer José Mourinho was instrumental in signing Mesut Özil from Werder Bremen for a bargain price of €15 million, and after a couple of matches to get himself situated to his new surroundings and responsibilities, Özil has been just as important as Ronaldo and Higuaín for Real’s offensive output.
Özil is tied for the league lead with five assists as well as chipping in with three goals, but the statistics do not really tell all that Özil does for Real Madrid. In hockey, assists are awarded not only to the player that passed to the person that scored but also to the player that passed to the principal assist man. If football kept such statistics, Özil would likely lead the league with a double-digit assist count because he provides the link from Xabi Alonso deep in the midfield to di María, Ronaldo, and Higuaín up front, and Kaká will find it difficult to supplant the German international when he is fully fit from his knee surgery.
Sergio Busquets will have the responsibility to break up and disrupt Özil in the middle of the pitch, especially during counter-attacks. Limiting Özil and di María to the periphery of the action should become Barcelona’s number one priority because accomplishing this task will isolate Ronaldo and Higuaín, and when they get frustrated, they both try to carry the whole team on their backs and will take ill-advised and speculative shots from all over the final third, which would suit Barcelona perfectly.
Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Villa, and Pedro Rodríguez will do what they do in Real’s final third. Ronaldo, Higuaín, and Xabi Alonso will do what they do in Barça’s final third. The wild cards are the two new participants in Los Blanco’s attacking midfield, Mesut Özil and Ángel di María, and their performances on Monday night will tilt the scales in one team’s favor. Perform well, and Real Madrid might just stop Barcelona’s four-match winning streak against Real. Perform mediocre or poorly, and Real Madrid will suffer the ignominy of Barça’s first ever five-match winning streak against Real.
Note: The times listed below are in Eastern Standard Time (EST).
Fuera de Juego: Especial El Clásico - 2:00 PM on ESPN Deportes
Gol TV Live Preview Show – 2:30 PM on Gol TV HD
FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid – 2:50 PM on Gol TV HD (Play-by-play Phil Schoen and Analyst Ray Hudson in English with Play-by-play Diego Pessolano and Analyst Eduardo Biscayart in Spanish)
ESPN Deportes (Play-by-play Fernando Palomo and Analyst Mario Kempes)
ESPN3 (Play-by-play Adrian Healey and Analyst Robbie Mustoe in English with Play-by-play Fernando Palomo and Analyst Mario Kempes in Spanish)
FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid Replays – 5:00 PM on Gol TV HD and 6:00 PM on ESPN Deportes
Sportscenter Especial El Clásico – 5:00 PM on ESPN Deportes
Gol TV News: El Clásico Special – 7:00 PM on Gol TV HD
La Liga 360: El Clásico – 7:30 PM on Gol TV HD