The two historic sides of Spanish football will face-off this weekend in a highly anticipated match expected to carry massive repercussions for the remainder of the season. Real Madrid are on top of the standings with a three point advantage over bitter rivals Barcelona. There is no lost love between the two sides and the regional and geopolitical factors add to the intensity of this clash. No doubt having what many deem as the world’s best three players in the shape of Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid and Barca’s duo Lionel Messi and Xavi will add further flavor to the match.
Below are some of the expected clashes and main subplots to this traditional slugfest between two of the best and most decorated clubs in the world:
1) Pep Guardiola versus Jose Mourinho: At this stage the younger coach Guardiola has the edge over Mourinho since the outspoken Portuguese boss has not beaten Pep in La Liga. In addition, Guardiola’s Barcelona have dominated domestic and European honors with the exception of Copa del Rey. Mourinho will be desperate to win to put behind last season demoralizing 5-0 loss at the Camp Nou.
One thing many should realize is the common belief Mourinho was always desperate to be coach of Barca and when the Catalans opted for Guardiola a few years ago he personally took it as a slap on the face. Thus, Mourinho is on a personal vendetta and that could explain his often controversial and aggressive speeches and interviews last season.
2) Barca’s Defensive line versus C. Ronaldo & Higuain: Barca’s defense has looked shaky at times this season and this is due to the fact club skipper Carles Puyol and his trusted partner Gerard Pique have missed a large chunk of Barca’s matches in La Liga this season. This creates instability at the back allowing quality players such as Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain to take advantage.
One of the main battles of the match will involve Ronaldo and Real’s attackers with Barca’s defenders. The help from Barca’s midfield will be crucial as the defensive line will likely falter against Ronaldo and his in-form teammates such as Higuain.
3) Barca’s Midfield and ball-possession: One crucial key to the match will be how much possession Barcelona’s midfielders, in particular the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas, can guarantee so as to relieve their defensive line from the intense pressure likely to be applied by Higuain, Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil and perhaps Kaka.
Xavi and Iniesta are not defensive midfielders or anchormen, but their ability to retain possession, pass the ball around and create opportunities will help decide how much rest their defenders will be enjoying. In addition, by keeping the ball, Iniesta and Xavi will be limiting how much damage Ronaldo can do if he has possession.
4) The brilliance of Lionel Messi: Barcelona’s quality players are all over the pitch, yet Messi has proven to be a decisive factor in most of the clashes against Real Madid since Mourinho took over. The Portuguese coach must be planning a way to slow down the Argentina star even if Mourinho might claim he will not adjust his strategy to restrict and contain the Argentine wizard.
Messi has scored decisive goals against Real Madrid, so whether he has enough space and time to dissect the Los Blancos defensive line could very well be the deciding factor in this match.
5) The form of Gonzalo Higuain: The Argentina striker suffered a serious injury during 2010-11 season but has been back to his best in in this early stretch of the La Liga campaign. If allowed the slightest of chances, the Argentine assassin might be able to decide the match’s outcome. Higuain has already managed a remarkable 12 goals in just 14 matches in La Liga. Of those 14 games he played in the Spanish league, he only started 7 of them. Higuain has also been extremely efficient managing to score 12 goals from just 18 shots on target and a total of 30 shots (12 of which were off target)!
6) The role of Real’s Pepe: The Portugese player has been used in a more advanced role as a defensive midfielder with one major task which is to shadow Messi’s movements. If Pepe can control his temper and avoid receiving a quick yellow card while slowing down Messi as much as possible, then Los Blancos will have a big opportunity to end up on top in this clash. Pepe has done a decent job against Messi who is one of the hardest players to mark in football.
7) Kaka and Ozil: If Kaka and Ozil do start, then the question will be wether the duo can provide the extra impetus needed to test Barca’s back-line and to offer the support for Ronaldo who will otherwise be getting the majority of Barca’s attention. Thus, if Ozil and Kaka do not perform as needed, then Barca will likely focus on frustrating Ronaldo.
8 ) Ronaldo’s productivity: The Portuguese star has often disappeared during extended stretches of the matches against the Catalans. If Ronaldo is not at his best or if he gets easily frustrated, then Real could suffer in the attempt to find ways to breakdown Barca. If Ronaldo plays to his potential then he could tip the balance in Real’s favor as long as Pepe can restrict Messi’s movement. Ronaldo is
9) Angel Di Maria (Madrid) and Fabregas (Barca): Di Maria has produced a magnificent season so far from a statistical standpoint with 11 assists and 3 goals in just 12 La Liga matches. Di Maria can create problems with his runs and he is the perfect complement to Higuain and Ronaldo.
On the other hand, Barca’s Fabregas is having an exemplary season since joining this summer from Arsenal with the midfielder managing an impressive tally of 7 goals and 5 assists in just 11 La Liga appearances. Fabregas has combined well with Messi and he has had no issues fitting seamlessly with his teammates.
10) Alexis Sanchez the X-Factor: The talented Chilean attacker suffered an unfortunate injury which stalled his career with the Camp Nou outfit after joining from Italy’s Udinese during the summer. However, Sanchez managed to score 4 goals in just 7 La Liga appearances. He could play a decisive role coming off the bench or perhaps coach Guardiola decides to insert him in the starting lineup to confuse opposing boss Jose Mourinho.
Regardless of whether Sanchez starts or plays a portion of the match, the Chilean is more than capable of creating something special and he could be the danger-man since most of Real’s players will be focused on Messi as well as Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas. With David Villa struggling to impress this season, it would not be surprising to see Sanchez grab the headlines if given the proper opportunity and ample time to deliver.
There are of course other players who can influence the outcome of the match but one crucial factor will be the attitude and approach of the players from both teams. Under Mourinho, Real’s players have often resorted to being physically aggressive in an attempt to intimidate Barca’s stars, yet that has backfired with Barca coming on top while some of Real’s players have been disciplined by the referees. On the other hand, Barca’s players have dropped fast to the ground and often engaged in outrageous flops as witnessed in last season’s Champions League tie between the two bitter clubs.
For the neutral fans of the beautiful game, the main wish is for an entertaining and free flowing spectacle with opposing stars Ronaldo and Messi allowed to perform at their scintillating best. For the respective supporters of the two clubs, their coaches and players, the main objective will be achieving victory to dent the title hopes of their bitter opponents.
Will Guardiola or Mourinho win this latest battle of wits? Will Messi or Ronaldo shine? There is one way to find out: fans ought to tune in to enjoy one of the year’s most anticipated matchups in sports!
Don’t forget: Real Madrid v Barcelona is live on ESPN Deportes on Saturday, December 10 at 4PM ET.