A Classic preview, aka “Great men don’t always make history”


If great men decide history, the effect of lesser men in steering history is often overlooked.

Saturday’s Classic boasts two of the greatest footballers in history, facing off on opposite sides. As the notion of great men and their writing a script for an extraordinary event goes, you couldn’t ask for a better moment in time. Both titans are on exceptional form, both redefining the idea of what a “good” scoring year is, as people look back on the idea of a forward banging in 25 goals being laudatory with a nostalgic giggle.

The seductive path is to simply say that as Messi or Ronaldo goes, so will go their team, even as recent history argues against that notion. Messi’s biggest role in the scoreline of the 2-1 Classic at the Camp Nou was giving the ball away and launching RM on a rocketship break that led to their only goal. Ronaldo offered threats, but no goal.

Lesser men. Neymar scored one goal and assisted the other. In the Bernabeu Classic, Benzema scored two, while Neymar assisted one goal and drew the penalty for the equalizer, while Iniesta drew the penalty for the resultant match winner. History will record that Messi notched a hat trick in that Classic, but lesser men set the stage.

But first, some reality checks.

Just 3 points

As Iniesta noted in his presser on Thursday, even if Barça lose, it will still be ahead of RM in the standings. This is a big match because of all the extra stuff attendant to a Classic, but in October, it decides nothing except bragging rights for the next week or so. This excellent preview gets it absolutely right, for me.

Gone is the eye-gouging and violence, the psychological wars and attendant nonsense, replaced by, as with last season, two coaches who are pragmatists. Probably like me, the hype bores them, and gets in the way of planning a proper match. Bayern Munich hipsters notwithstanding, this is a match between the two best football teams in the world right now. For 3 points in the standings. Catalunya isn’t going to be independent if Barça win. Rajoy won’t be able to say now we can fix that referendum nonsense once and for all if RM win. Wilfred the Hairy won’t spin in his grave.

It’s 3 points in the standings.

Both teams are on exceptional form. They dismantled a Liverpool side that was stripped naked on the European stage, and we pulled off a half-speed drubbing of Ajax that really wasn’t as close as the score indicated, despite the fondness of hysterical culers to inflate matters.

Both teams are still coming into shape, and neither team is as good as it is going to be for the second Classic. Ancelotti is still getting the handle on his new signings, as the likes of James Rodriguez comes into form, and Isco fights for a spot in the rotation. And of course Luis Enrique got EIGHT new players for his roster, and as some overcome injuries and others round into form, Barça is also a team still taking shape.

I have absolutely zero patience with pessimism. I don’t understand it, I don’t believe in it. To my view, attempting to cushion the blow of a potential loss by going in saying your team is going to lose is chickenshit. It sells you and them short. If they win, you celebrate. If they lose, you sit there and smugly say “I knew it all along.” But as a very good writer, Eric Coffin-Gould said on Twitter, if Iniesta said, going into a Classic that he felt Barça was going to lose, people would lose their minds.

The players step onto the pitch, fully expecting to play well enough to win. I would never tell anyone how to support the team, but I can’t fathom not expecting to win. I think that Barça is going to win every match that it plays, because what else would I think.

Form follows function, but not now

In big matches, players step up. Pique, for example, whatever inconsistencies his form has had of late, he always shows up for big matches. Unexpected players score, other players unexpectedly have the match of their careers. Stuff happens because in big matches, everything is elevated, like having 6 shots of caffeine when you wake up, just because.

In past years, RM has been enjoying form that has made the culer naysayers gather in the temples and barricade the doors – first putting the women and children in the basement. And the match has gone completely differently from expectation. On paper, this could be one of the great matches, as both teams haven’t been better in recent history. No sitting back, no kicking, just two titans playing as equals.

But there are, of course, a great many questions looming for Barça.

Martino got it right

In last year’s 2-1 Classic, Martino got the lineup exactly right. For those who don’t recall, the 3 biggest things that he did were:

— Adriano at LB (strength, size, pace, defensive default setting)
— Messi on RW (shifted their defense, made Ramos in midfield an error, not a tactic)
— Neymar unleashed (first match in which we got a glimpse of what was about to be)


What can Enrique do? The list of possibilities is mind-boggling. First reaction is that Pedro won’t start, because he played 90 minutes vs Ajax. Second reaction is that every player who didn’t play or was subbed off early, will start vs RM. Within that world, however, there are gobs of permutations. Let’s start with the lineup that I would like to see:

Ter Stegen
Alves Pique Mascherano Mathieu
Rakitic Busquets Xavi
Messi Neymar Munir

Now we know Mascherano will start, because he always does for Enrique when he isn’t injured, and because Busquets was rested against Ajax, you can count on him. You can count on Rakitic because of the necessity of his industry and quality, particularly without Pedro being part of the team.

Ter Stegen is precisely the kind of sweeper keeper that will be required to deal with RM attacks before they become a problem. He also commands his area in front of goal, which means that set pieces offer a greater opportunity for being punched away or caught because his playing radius is larger than Claudio Bravo’s.

Munir is, simply put, a nightmare to play against because of his movement, which is precisely the thing the Barça hasn’t had in the middle in some time against RM. He also makes the Suarez sub easy, in that you don’t have to move anyone around. It’s a straight swap.

Now that lineup is about as likely to happen as I am to sprout wings and fly to Barcelona, so let’s look at a more likely lineup:

Alves Mascherano Mathieu Alba
Rakitic Busquets Xavi
Messi Neymar Iniesta

Alba can safely start because his size won’t be a liability against Bale, who is out for the match. Iniesta gives the threat from the left, and ball control as he slides back and forth between midfield and the forward line. Mathieu offers size and pace in the center of the line, and Bravo starts because he is the titular No. 1 keeper right now. All very pragmatic, safe and logical.

Which is why I think something different will happen, most likely Mathieu at LB, but don’t be shocked if Suarez starts. There really isn’t an incumbent whose feathers would be ruffled, and an early goal could set the tone for the rest of this match. Barça is better off getting on top early than chasing the match late, which opens the team up to the counter.

Suarez starting also gives the team the opportunity to have its big three on the pitch at the same time, when all are fresh, rather than subbing Suarez in for say, Neymar or Iniesta after the 60th minute.

Not great men

We have two players who have the potential to devastate this match, in Neymar and Luis Suarez, whose 4-month ban will end just in time for the Classic. Neither player is great in the same way that Messi and Ronaldo is, even as Neymar and Suarez are absolute top-class players with mind-boggling bags of tricks.

Suarez: We don’t need to go over why he couldn’t play football for 4 months now, do we? His ban is over, and what he brings to the table is a knack for scoring goals. Further still he can create goals from fragments of chances, and has a work rate to match his scoring capabilities. The difficulty that he presents for the RM defense is the same one that Munir will present: movement, and lots of it.

In the past, it has actually been fairly easy to play Barça for RM. Just focus on the little guy, since none of the others were really going to beat you. Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Pedro and Villa or Sanchez? Messi became the focus. Last year was the first year that Barça could offer a player with the necessary quality to create real danger in a working space other than that occupied by Messi, and Neymar was decisive in both Classics last year. Suarez has that potential, and then some, as life gets a lot harder for the RM back line.

Yet because he isn’t match fit, his minutes will be limited. Only question is whether he starts, or comes on as a sub.


Neymar: This man is in absurd form right now, with clinical finishing, pace, increased strength and the ability to get behind pretty much any defender. Add his passing abilities and associative play and you have another potential match changer. He was very good last season, and he’s better this year. If the Messi, Suarez and Neymar attack happens, there will be three players on the attack at the same time, all of whom require at least a double team, and all of whom like to play near or in the opponent area.

Neymar can use pace, dribbling or 1-2s to get at a defense, and the bond that he and Messi have verges on telepathic. It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of this player, in this match. He’s potentially more important than Messi (as RM found out last year), because suddenly, you can’t devote everyone to stopping Messi. If you do, Neymar will kill you. And the way that he gets balls to people, you don’t even have to be a finisher of Messi’s caliber to make the shot.


Minimize set pieces. The end.


On form, Xavi should start, if forced to choose between Iniesta and Xavi. On potential, Xavi should still start, as Iniesta still hasn’t (and hopefully won’t) been able to subsume his tendency to take a run at the defense rather than play a forward pass. But with the front 3 running around and RM’s counterattacking capabilities, turned possession will leave Barça at least 4 players down, potentially 5 if Alves gets caught up the pitch. Rakitic will be a huge help on the Alves side of things, and he is quite capable of excellent performances vs RM.

Win the midfield, win the match, if you’re Barça. If you’re RM, it strikes me that taking control of the flanks as attacking avenues is going to be a goal. This is where I disagree with the notion that Bale being out and Isco being in makes them stronger. Pace is the great destabilizer for our defense. Without Bale, there is Ronaldo, who is manageable, provided care is taken with the ball and in keeping a man on his runs up the pitch.

So what’s going to happen? Good question. War. I like what Barça brings to the table more than what RM does, because if you take away the superstar, what are you left with? Who is going to kill you by putting the ball in the net? They have quality, but not at the Suarez and Neymar level, the talent of Rodriguez notwithstanding.

Barça has yet to concede in Liga, but I think that streak will change on Saturday, to the tune of a 2-2 draw.


Coming soon: A “talk” with Bassam Dgheim, of Real Madrid Football Blog.

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.


  1. I still have to read the rest, but strength and size Adriano? Are we thinking about the same player here? 😀

    1. Correct. He’s also much more physical than Alba, and matches up much better, size-wise, with the RM players. He had a great match last year.

    2. I forgot about that. Did Adriano play because Alba was injured or was it a tactical decision? It’s a shame that Martino lost his nerve halfway through the season…

      Agree that DA, Piqué, Masche and Mathieu should be our starting back 4.

  2. u sum it pretty well. We will win if we control the midField. Suarez may not be match fit but why i think he would be good to start is his demonic energy. The man presses like no other and we need to ride the early inevitable Madrid storm. Whatever LE does we have more midfield quality than to triumph. Without Alonso they will find out how hard it is to contain Messi and Iniesta between the lines. If Suarez starts in front of Messi the better for us. One or two through balls wil happen

  3. There are so many tactical variations available to Lucho. The work done this past summer was very astute.
    There are a number of areas where things could radically change.
    I believe that a back four of Alves Pique Bartra Mathieu is our strongest defensively and that Mascherano should start in midfield in front of them. Mascherano has proved his quality in practically all of his matches this season and is our best defensive leader but the safety of having Pique & Bartra in behind him when he picks up Ronaldo would make my mind up. When Ronaldo drifts left he can be picked up by Dani Alves who has always matched up well with him and when he drifts right Mathieu would be more than capable of keeping him quiet.
    Benzema hurt us last year when he was directly matched up with Mascherano and I think that both Pique & Bartra are much better suited to dealing with his threat. Alves & Mathieu give us much better balance in my opinion playing in an atmosphere like that in Madrid.

    In midfield Mascherano is in better form and fitness than Busquets and this is probably the first big match in years that I wouldn’t start Busi. The only situation where I would is if Lucho sees fit to play 4 midfielders and only Neymar and Messi up front. I prefer the balance given by playing someone up front with Messi and Neymar rather than asking them to change their game when it is at its peak.
    Xavi, Iniesta & Rakitic are nearly all on a level standing on current form. I love the control from Xavi, the work rate from Rakitic and the magic of Iniesta. Up against Kroos and Modric, Iniesta’s ability to break through the lines could be vital but I feel that Xavi and Rakitic would give us the best solidity. I reckon that Rakitic and Iniesta will start and Rakitic again will be asked to keep it simple and safe.

    Up front I would start Suarez, Messi & Neymar. Classicos are often low scoring games, where a single mistake or piece of brilliance decides the outcome of the game. Suarez brings a fear factor that none of the other forwards do, that if you give him one chance he’ll bury it. Pedro doesn’t, Munir doesn’t and Sandro doesn’t. Messi & Neymar are in incredible form and asking them to change tactically is a mistake. I can’t see Madrid being able to keep both of them scoreless and having Suarez there, occupying even more defenders, can only help this.

    In goal, you have to go with the on-form Bravo regardless of the fact that he hasn’t had much testing so far. He has done nothing wrong to be dropped.

    Alves Pique Bartra Mathieu
    Rakitic Masch Iniesta
    Suarez Messi Neymar

    1. I expect Busquets to play and Bartra to sit with Masch in defense. Still, I think that we’d have better balance with Bartra.

    2. Me neither, but you never know. I think that we need Javier’s muscle in the midfield. It is a real place we can exploit Madrid for once.

      That’s my exact back line though. We really should start experimenting with Jordi on the right.

      Oh, and great post!

  4. I just cant picture xavi in any of the line-ups, since his role is basic but assured passing, rakitic has shown what we lacked last season, pressing intensity.

    alves, masch, mathieu, alba
    rakitic, busi, iniesta,
    suarez, messi, neymar.

    Alba is really very essential because of his pace and pesky defending, he is one of those guys you just cant get past because they keep coming at you.

    1. I also think Xavi will be introduced in the later part of the game.
      Alba is essential, yet I think exchanging him for Mathieu may be a good idea.

      Alves, Mascherano, Pique, Mathieu
      Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta
      Suarez, Messi, Neymar.

      If he is fit and in sync, then Suarez should play. However, it may turn out that Pedro for the first fifty minutes and Suarez for the other forty+ could be a good choice.
      My reasoning with Mathieu is this:
      1. Alba played 90 minutes against Ajax and ran a lot. Even though he needs less recovery than the older guys, it’s still just 90 hours between the two games.
      2. Ancelotti is likely to play 4-4-2, with a double anchor, and also possibly Benzema shadowing Busquets in order to achieve numerical superiority in midfield and open the central channel. Playing essentially three Barcelona CBs in the back would allow Busquets to stay where he’d be used best and where his pubalgia won’t bother him as much, since Mascherano would be the main ball carrier from the defence.
      3. If needed, Mascherano can go forward and equalize the numbers. It would still leave him close to the area and would still mean Pique and Mathieu are back, even if Dani Alves is forward.

      In any case I think having Mascherano on the pitch will be a very good idea, with or without Busquets. Of course, Luis Enrique may have his ideas, and currently the attack relies a lot on Alba and Alves, so removing one of them, even if gaining Suarez, may be detrimental. On the other hand, it would destabilize the Real Midfield, since the presence of Suarez, Dani Alves and Messi on the right-ish side would force the defence to drift closer, ergo more space for Iniesta and Neymar on the left side. This may have the beneficial effect of isolating the wide right MF of Real, but may have a detrimental effect, since all that space would mean that every ball that gets to that wide MF will be dangerous, unless Mathieu is in place to channel the danger.

  5. The problem with Xavi has been his misuse on the part of coaches and himself. The man can no longer play practically every game. The mileage on his legs has been so huge. Strategically used he remains our best bet to controlling games.

    Xavi himself needs to remember that to be useful he needs a lot lot of rest and be used in specific games. Nothing wrong there. It preserve and elongate his career. at some point the rest does you good.

    1. I don’t think Xavi would argue that he needs rest. It’s the club who have way overplayed him in the last two seasons because we don’t have as good an alternative (do we actually know what our alternative is yet?)

      To call his role basic is I think to misunderstand what he does and what it’s like yo play against him. If he doesn’t play, and there’s a fair chance LE won’t choose him, get behind the couch for the first half hour.

  6. it seems like everyone keeps forgetting about the PSG match we can’t have alves and alba in the lineup together it leaves the team so unbalanced against such an opponent. I like the lineup suggested by ciaran

    Alves Pique Bartra Mathieu
    Rakitic Masch Iniesta
    Suarez Messi Neymar

    solidity in midfield with masch and rakitic with mathieu to set iniesta to perfom his magic up top with Messi and Co not also forgetting the surprise element of Suarez, he might not be fit but he would get himself into good positins and definitely score as he has proven in the U-19 match, the friendly against Saudi Arabia and Oman

  7. I don’t know how you did it, Kxevin, but my heart rate went up by at least 50% while reading your article. I am so excited about the Clasico and cautiously optimistic as always.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and your ways of thinking about the sport.

  8. Completely agree that Neymar was the difference maker in both the clasicos last year. He could have been the hero in all the 3 clasicos if only the shot that hit the post had gone in in the Copa final. What a signing he has been.

    These are the lineups I would like to see tomorrow. Can’t wait.

    Lineup 1 :-

    Alves pique mathieu alba
    Rakitic iniesta
    Messi neymar suarez

    busquets for alba – so masch moves to CB and mathieu to LB.
    xavi for suarez – so iniesta moves up to link up with forwards and MF.

    alves pique mascherano mathieu
    rakitic xavi
    neymar messi iniesta

    suarez for xavi / iniesta – straight swap with iniesta / iniesta moves to MF and xavi makes way for Suarez.

    i think lineup 2 is most probable as i dont expect our dracula to start.

  9. the 4 3 the difference was Messi. He set up Iniesta for the opening goal and threaded the pass that saw Ramos see red. he might not have set it ablaze but he was a big factor in the win. as was neymar and Iniesta

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