The biggest encounter in club football has arrived, Barcelona vs Real Madrid, the El Clasico.
And this time around, the fight is greater as the teams are jointly on top of La Liga, with Barcelona ahead just by goal difference. A win here would prove vital for the title chase, and with the Christmas vacation looming, both the teams have their eyes locked on their first present of the festival.
This Clasico is more heated than ever because of something off the field, the independence movement of Catalonia. The match was actually scheduled to be played on October 26, but protests at Barcelona forced the La Liga executives to move it to the current date. Protests are still ongoing and that has led to security concerns. Thoughts like playing the match at a neutral venue were also being discussed but with Barcelona adamant to play at their fortress, it will be played amid a heated environment.
Imbalanced Barcelona, Hesitant Madrid
Barcelona undoubtedly have one of the best squads in world football who look like a side who should cruise to every trophy there is. But even with such firepower in their arsenal, Ernesto Valverde's side has looked out of sorts. With Luis Suarez showing signs of ageing and Antoine Griezmann still coping with his new surroundings, they have often been over-reliant on their mercurial skipper Lionel Messi. Marc Andre Ter Stegen has been superb too and so has been new signing Frenkie de Jong but other from them, the others have been in and out of form. The good news for Barcelona is their electric left-back Jordi Alba is back for them and his telepathic connection with Messi might prove vital.
But what would be absolutely crucial for Barcelona is their front three's combination play, which looked to be growing in their last few matches. And if they somehow manage to get that MSG to be plateaued to its full, Madrid might suffer as they did in the last season when they lost 5-1.
Real Madrid had a horror show last season, but since Zinedine Zidane's reappointment, they have looked to get back into their strive, but have not really done so. They have looked fluent in attack and solid in defence from time to time, but their wastefulness and lack of concentration have often led them to lose points.
Real Madrid have been reliant on Karim Benzema for their goals this season, who has flowered since Cristiano Ronaldo left. Madrid do not have Eden Hazard in their armoury as the brilliant Belgian is out with an injury and Vinicius Jr might be the one who will be asked to fill his boots. The prodigal Brazilian is daft with his feet when it comes to skills but fails to reciprocate his brilliance when it comes to finishing. Zidane would hope that his front three fires and finally Gareth Bale and co wins him another Clasico since 2017 but the job will not be easy because however distraught Barcelona are, they are a different beast at Camp Nou.
The tactical battle
The drama of El Clasico even notches up a scale when it comes to the tactical battle as this fixture has seen great managers fight it out for their glory. With Ernesto Valverde and Zinedine Zidane, two managers very different in tactical aspects, there is a chance that this Clasico will turn in to a classic, which it often does.
Both managers prefer 4-3-3 as their team setup, with their pivot dropping down to the backline to form a back three.
Ernesto Valverde is likely to go with his lineup at Anoeta as this match is the last before the winter break. Which means it will be Marc Andre Ter Stegen at goal, Sergi Roberto at right-back, Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet as the centre-back pairing and Alba completing the backline at left-back. The midfield will be comprised of Sergio Busquets at pivot with Ivan Rakitic and Frenkie de Jong, and the newly formed MSG will complete the lineup.
Zidane will have Thibaut Courtois as his keeper, with Ferland Mendy, Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane and Dani Carvajal forming the backline. Casemiro will play as the pivot, with Fede Valverde and Toni Kroos alongside him and Vinicius Jr, Benzema and Gareth Bale will complete the eleven.
It has been reported that Zidane is looking forward to man-marking Messi with their find of this season, Fede Valverde. But this might take the wrong turn as it happened in 2017 when Mateo Kovacic was assigned to man-mark the astronomical Argentine but only managed to gift Barcelona the first goal when Rakitic utilized the space Kovacic left to cover Messi. Valverde has been one of Madrid's best players this season and so is de Jong for Barcelona.
The Dutchman has fit right into Barcelona arriving from Ajax and he looks a brilliant player with both the panache and the cool.
But the differentiating factor in the game might be the goalkeeping position as Ter Stegen is one of the best goalkeepers at the moment and even though Courtois might be better than he was at the beginning, he is still not on the level of his German counterpart.
Barcelona will look to use the ocean of space the Madrid full-backs leave behind while attacking, but that goes the same way for the Catalans too.
What to expect
Well, expect nothing less than a fiery clash. Even though both the sides are on top, both their managers are hanging on a thin thread. So, both of them will hunt a win to go on top by three points and get a new lifeline. But in this battle, Ernesto Valverde has a slight advantage as he has a full-fit Messi. Messi's record in the Clasico is phenomenal to say the least as Real Madrid are one of his most favourite opponents. But football, my friend, is a team game. Even though Barcelona have had the upper hand in the recent past, but it is a Clasico.
And who can tell the outcome beforehand, when the Titans fight it out?