Mere hours away now, as that weird feeling starts to build. For me, the left corner of my mouth begins to twitch involuntarily, a stress reaction. So let’s think about some stuff, to take our minds off.
A great many things were different when these two teams last squared off. RM was the best team that anyone had ever seen except for maybe Guardiola’s Barça. Ronaldo was BdO rampant and Kroos was daisy-fresh.
On the Barça side of the aisle there was much uncertainty. Suarez started, even though he was nothing approximating match fit or confident, and Enrique was still figuring out the parts that he had to work with.
My, how times change. Time to look at some key battlegrounds for this one, and try to suss what might happen.
First things first
When you have players of the quality on offer here, predictions are worthless. So many athletes are capable of so many moments of genius that can turn a match that you might as well predict where that hummingbird is going to flit next. That’s the beauty of a match such as this, really. Athletes of exceptional quality have another level. We see it all the time in all kinds of sports from tennis to rugby. The focus is always on Messi and Ronaldo, but they are big match players. They will show up. What isn’t often considered is the host of other big-match players that will be on the pitch today.
It’s a cliche, but throw those predictions out of the window when the first ball is kicked.
Who cares about a midfield?
This is a weird Classic to figure out tactically because if ever there was a match where the midfield has the potential to be rendered superfluous when it comes to decisive moemnts, it’s this one. Here’s why:
Neymar: On the left side of the Barça attack, Neymar will be crucial. He won’t be able to make his attacking game subordinate to his defensive game as he did against Manchester City, where it was more important that Barça not concede than that they score. Balance will be key.
Alba vs Bale: Bale canNOT be allowed to be decisive in any way today. Alba will have to get in his grille and deny him space, and Neymar will have to help. This means a lot of work for both players, and almost certainly a less-attacking Alba. This battle will be crucial. If Bale gets the corner and is allowed to cross balls in, he’s more dangerous than if you cut off that dive for the end line, and force him to shoot.
Alves vs Marcelo: Marcelo got the better of that battle in October, but Alves was, frankly, wrestling with not being complete crap the first part of the season. Alves will have to give as good as he gets, and defensive help for him will be important, from Rakitic as well as Messi.
Messi on the right: This is the biggest tactical wrinkle of today’s match, an in-form Messi away from the heart of the RM defense, which is its strength. Pepe and Ramos will have to defend while moving, instead of standing there waiting for Messi to come to them.
Ronaldo: Because pace has been a traditional weakness of the Barça defense, look for him to be resurgent today, making runs and shooting within anything approximating sight of the goal. He will want to prove something today, which will make him exceptionally dangerous. With Modric back in the side and Kroos rested not to mention Isco, an Iniesta who can score, Ronaldo will have opportunities. Bravo will have to be exceptionally sharp today.
Will this match be decided on the flanks? For me, most likely, despite the midfield talent and quality that both teams have on offer. Barça will, barring anything odd, be coming out with Iniesta/Rakitic/Mascherano. Look for RM to start with Isco/Modric/Kroos.
In the past, Barça could just roll out with Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets, then add Alves and Messi to just keep the ball and minimize any attacking threats RM could muster. But those days of tika-taka defending are long gone. Barça still have the highest average possession in La Liga at something like 70%, but it’s a different kind of possession these days, possession without control, so to speak.
Just because the match will most likely be decided on the flanks doesn’t mean that the midfield won’t have a say. RM, with Kroos and Isco, are more likely to get goals from their midfield than Barça, recent Rakitic tallies notwithstanding. Iniesta will be looking to get as involved as Isco, the man many say will replace him on the Spanish NT, will be. Kroos will be looking to control and command while Modric has the potential to play impeccable forward balls. In many ways their midfield has become Barça-like. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s also exceptionally dangerous.
Busquets is the big question of today. He trained normally with the squad, and got the medical green light this morning. If he is at all fit to play, he should start. His presence in control and command is too crucial not to have on the pitch. It also means that Enrique can start Mascherano in the back line (sorry, Jim), which will allow him to shuttle up and back, helping with midfield defending as need arises or being able to buttress the efforts of Alba in Bale control.
Luis Suarez changes everything. When he started that first Classic, he was just off suspension. He wasn’t match fit, couldn’t really hit the broad side of a barn with the ball and was stomping around like a mastodon, more an associative player than a threat.
Current Suarez is match fit and scoring goals, popping up on both flanks, dragging defenders around with him, which creates space for the other Barça attackers. RM have Benzema, but he is a player who you can play soft on until he gets the ball, like Pedro in many ways. Suarez demands constant attention, a quality that will unsettle a defense because he also has a knack for playing in a defender’s blind spot, this threat that you need to pay attention to behind you, while you also have Messi running around in front of you.
The potential difference that Suarez can make in this match can’t be understated. The last time Barça faced RM with three creative, associative attackers who could all score at a high level was the 08-09 season, with Messi, Henry and Eto’o. And yes, that includes the Villa years. Villa was a fine player, but Suarez is a completely different situation for a defense to have to manage.
RM comes at you with a trio of attackers who use pace (Ronaldo, Bale) but are less effective when they stop moving, or who use strength and creativity (Benzema) in shot creation. Barça has a trio of attackers who are just as dangerous on the move as stopped, as all three are capable of turning and bursting past a defender, or making a creative pass to find a teammate. In theory, this is a significant advantage for Barça.
I wouldn’t want to be on either back line today. It helps that Pique is in all-world form, and Jordi Alba has never been playing better in the colors. Alves will be solid, and as for that other CB, no worries there though Mathieu with his rather wobbly clearances at times will be a source of stress. The last thing you want to do is gift their mids possession with an inaccurate clearance. If Mathieu starts, look for Enrique to tell Busquets to mind him, so that he always has a short ball to play forward rather than a stressed, “Get this thing outta here!” punt up the pitch.
Ramos being back for them is huge. He isn’t that big of a difference maker tactically, though he is always good for that “Oh, crap!” goal for them. But he brings an edge to their back line that is absent when Varane is partnering Pepe. He is also allowed to get away with fouls that Varane isn’t. He and Pepe will be far more physical than Varane and Pepe, who is less psychopath and more top-quality defender these days. Culers would rather he was still being a maniac, as he was easier to take out of his game that way.
From a team defense front, the advantage has to go to Barça, who attack AND defend with 11 in big matches as Messi contributes on both ends of the pitch.
On the keeper side of things, Casillas has the potential to be more decisive than Bravo. Although the RM keeper isn’t the force that he once was, he still has a knack for the remarkable reflex save and works well with that back line, which is why even though people can’t figure out why he is starting over Keylor Navas, they can if they think about it.
If Enrique was bold, he would start Ter Stegen, but he isn’t that bold and Bravo has done absolutely nothing to warrant loss of his Liga starting spot. Bravo is a fine reflex keeper who won’t screw the side, but his tendency to stay put when facing a threat sometimes allows shooting angles that don’t exist with a more active keeper, something we saw in the Pinto-for-Valdes exchange.
A match will be played. Had Barça not just had a demanding midweek Champions League outing I would say 3-1 Barça. But because they did, I am going with a 2-2 draw, and it will be fraught as fatigue begins to catch up to the team late in the match, when RM will be resurgent and pressing for the win.
But I could be wrong.