When it was confirmed Barcelona forward Neymar was to miss Sunday’s Clasico showdown with Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu, panic engulfed those associated with the Catalan giants.
Indeed, while the Brazilian’s petulance was there for all to see in the loss to Malaga, Barcelona are reportedly ready to launch an appeal to get the ban reduced. According to Marca (via Football Espana) if the Administrative Court for Sport hear their case on Friday, he could yet feature.
There’s a degree of desperation about the way the Blaugrana have approached the matter. But that’s because it’s difficult to see this side winning in the capital without the raiding Brazilian.
By contrast, Real Madrid have dealt with their own potential key absentee with a little more calm.
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Gareth Bale, who is a doubt for the fixture having missed the midweek showdown with Bayern Munich in the Champions League with an injury, has a similar status to that of Neymar in Catalonia—the potential heir to the main man. He provides the thrust from the flanks and counter-attacking potency too.
But Madrid won’t be doing all they can to rush him back prematurely. There’s a feeling they can cope with what should be a key absentee.
This dynamic is illustrative of the key difference between these two behemoths of Spanish football this season. Madrid simply have superior depth.
Because you’re scratching your head wondering how Barca are going to cope without Neymar, aren’t you?
Granted, there’s no player in world football who can offer the same influence from the left flank as the No. 11. But the options are underwhelming. Paco Alcacer has toiled during his debut term, Arda Turan is still recovering from injury and Denis Suarez has delivered inconsistent displays since his summer arrival.
It means Luis Enrique may have to do something significant. Maybe move the aging Andres Iniesta out wide? Maybe change the entire system? It’s not ideal.
There’ll be no need for such seismic changes in the Madrid setup if Bale doesn’t make it. Because Zidane has so many alternatives. A rejuvenated Isco is likely to keep his place, but Lucas Vazquez is another possibility if the Frenchman fancies a more industrious presence on the right.
Marco Asensio may get the nod if Zidane wants a wildcard option, while James Rodriguez, as things stand, won’t get a look in.
It’s a point in the season when depth becomes so important for these teams, as the toll of fighting for multiple titles starts to mount up in terms of injuries and suspensions. And it’s to the great credit of Zidane that he’s been able to keep the vast majority of his squad in form and in the right frame of mind.
Since the turn of the year there have been two different shades of Los Blancos. There’s the first XI, typically spearheaded by Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, who may not be thrilling in their football, but slip into a mechanical groove and get games won.
But there’s another XI we’ve seen in recent weeks too. Madrid’s second string, including the likes of Alvaro Morata, Isco and Asensio, have taken apart some of the league’s less illustrious teams with more inventive and enterprising football. The manager may have taken risks by making wholesale changes, but the players he’s entrusted have come through.
It’s why, on the cusp of this potentially title-deciding Clasico contest, Madrid have a big advantage over their bitter rivals.
Enrique hasn’t rotated with the same conviction, nor comparable acumen. Subsequently, someone is likely to come into this red-hot fixture cold in Barcelona colors.
And that’s not a situation you would have envisaged at the start of the campaign, as Barcelona made a conscious effort to improve their squad depth. Arguably, Samuel Umtiti is the only surefire success from that window, with Suarez, Alcacer, Andre Gomes, Lucas Digne and Jasper Cillessen still to prove they’re Barcelona class.
Subsequently, Madrid are fresher at this point. Perhaps not in a purely footballing sense, as there have been some iffy displays from Zidane’s side in recent weeks, especially at home against Atletico Madrid and Bayern. But they’ve dug in, made smart snap decisions and got through games.
Barcelona, by contrast, have often flattered to deceive and the ease with which they were nullified over two legs by Juventus will be a concern to Enrique. Madrid will likely follow the same blueprint and without Neymar, the capital club will be confident of stifling the Catalan visitors.
That’s not to say Barcelona can’t win this Clasico. With Messi and Suarez in the XI, the potential is always there to do wonderful things, while the experience of men like Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique is so important in these matches.
Even so, if Barcelona were to move level on points with Real at the top—having played a game more—would you still be confident in them going to Espanyol a week later and taking three points? What about when they visit Las Palmas, or even host Villarreal? It’s tough to have full trust in them after recent surrenders to Malaga and Deportivo La Coruna.
Zidane and Madrid, meanwhile, have variety and antidotes for almost any in-game situation. It’s why, regardless of Sunday’s result, they remain massive favorites to get across the line first in this absorbing La Liga title race.