It has been a very long time since culers have entered the final stages of anticipation of the Biggest of Them All, the Classic, with more trepidation. Usually the sayings about form doesn’t matter, anything can happen, on any given day, are mere cliches. In this case, they’re true. Neither team enters this match in scintillating, inspiring form. Barça was played off the pitch by Real Sociedad, which is inspiring pessimism and rending of garments. But people forget that Real Madrid was a choke of a penalty miss away from drawing Sporting Gijon, who more than held their own. A draw would have been a fair result.
Even as it appears the teams are headed in different directions, are they really? What’s the key to this match? Real Madrid are absent Toni Kroos and Gareth Bale, a pair of essential players. The latter was the key to their Camp Nou win last season as he treated Jordi Alba like a rag doll. Barça comes into this crucial match with a rarity: a full squad. Luis Enrique will be able to choose the XI that gives the best chance to win, rather than an XI comprised of players who aren’t injured. This is huge, because if Barça is going to play its way out of whatever malaise is affecting the team, the XI will have to show the way.
We don’t know what Luis Enrique is going to do, but this is a very safe XI prediction: Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta, Neymar, Messi, Suarez. The only thing I would advocate for is using Umtiti instead of Mascherano.
Essentially, Umtiti IS Mascherano, just better in the air and more capable going forward. He is also calmer than Mascherano, less inclined to attempt a tackle when he can influence a play by simply being there. He’s also faster than Mascherano. It would impress me greatly if Umtiti got the start, even as Luis Enrique will always opt for veteran savvy in big matches. Plus not having Gareth Bale means that the left side of the defense gets a bit of a break, even in the face of the uncertainty that Benzema brings to the dance.
But there is a larger reason for the advocacy of Umtiti. Real Madrid is going to do what every successful opponent has done against Barça: press, and flood the midfield. The return to their side of Casemiro means that he will be tasked with Messi duties. The midfield is going to be a clogged mess, which has been a big problem in the past for Barça. Umtiti allows that running defender, a man charging with the ball to bypass presses and clogs to thread a ball or create an opening by running with the ball. It’s a link that has been missing of late, and will be important for success against the Real Madrid press, for press they will. Links between back line and attacking players will be crucial, especially as you can also look for them to try to neutralize Busquets.
The return of Iniesta is huge. The difference that Mininiesta made against La Real was significant, again because he could close those links. It made the La Real press less effective. Iniesta is capable of the same thing, obviously to a much greater degree. He can destroy a defense with a simple run, capped by a flawless pass. It isn’t an understatement to say that a lot of the current difficulties that Barça is experiencing began the day of that unfortunate challenge eight weeks ago.
Despite all of that, the key for me is Luis Suarez. If he shows up in full, Barça will win. It’s as simple as that. Why? You don’t even need fancy tactical diagrams and the like to understand what he brings to the side. If he is on form, he is unholy. He’s pressing in the midfield, running at the keeper to force a hurried clearance, helping with the first layer of the press to work the ball loose close to the opponent goal, then hustling to get on the end of the resultant ball into the box. He scores absurd goals, moves constantly and is, in effect, impossible to play.
What he also does is enables Neymar and Messi, both of whom need playmates for maximum effectiveness. The legend of Messi is huge, but he isn’t going to beat five defenders to score a goal. Has he in the past? Yes, and that’s the key to his legend. But even as he makes the extraordinary seem ordinary, to rely on him to perform the impossible is a fool’s errand. Suarez is the player most capable of capitalizing on the “Oh, shit!” that Messi creates, because it is impossible for defenders to stay calm and just do their jobs when Messi is running at them. That’s where Suarez comes in.
Neymar capers, prances and dances, but his runs into the box need a terminus. Many are saying that Neymar is doing the same stuff this season, that he isn’t growing as a player, etc, etc. Nobody says that Messi “does the same stuff” when he makes one of his runs, or arcs a lofted diagonal pass to someone’s feet. Neymar does what he does. But what he does has been less effective in the absence of Suarez, as the Trident has had only two legs for too much of this season. Further, Suarez often has Barça playing with ten men, because when he isn’t scoring goals, he’s worrying about scoring them, instead of playing his natural, all-pitch game. He hangs out nervously on the shoulder of the defense, and is usually offside more than a few times a match, because he’s pressing. He isn’t pressing in midfield because he wants to stay close to goal, as if proximity will provide him with the best opportunities, rather than taking chances as a part of the natural flow of the offense.
Suarez has been poor all season, which makes it no wonder that the Barça attack has also struggled. It strands Neymar and isolates Messi. When he is poor, he also turns the ball over, the kiss of death against Real Madrid, who can get from end to end with alacrity. Suarez has to show up for Barça to have the best chance to win.
Another key player will be Sergi Roberto. If the tousled Masia gem had more pace, he would be Zidane’s biggest worry as the wild card. But as a conseuqence of that lack of pace Sergi Roberto will have to be more conservative facing off on Ronaldo’s side, which is a shame. As we know, Ronaldo isn’t all that interested in defending, preferring to leave those chores to the professionals. There will be opportunities for Sergi Roberto to take advantage of that, particularly as Marcelo is often caught up the pitch on opponent counters. Don’t be surprised if Sergi Roberto has a key moment in the match. That weakness will be exploitable, which might be a reason Messi will shade to the right tomorrow, particularly with Iniesta back, which frees him of the midfield duties he has been performing in the Maestro’s absence.
People believe that Real Madrid are the favorites in this match, for reasons that are apparent. Barça would appear to be a mess, but looks can be deceiving. Let’s just take a quick look at how easy solutions are to be found:
— Iniesta provides the midfield control and creativity, and can also help on defense, which enables …
— Busquets, who won’t have to cover as much space or be a one-man battleship in a contested area, as opponents batter at the back line, so that …
— Pique or Umtiti can push up, providing attacking flair from the back which has been absent of late, forcing too many easily defended long balls, so …
— Messi gets the ball already in a danger spot close to the defense instead of having to run at it.
Even as Barça is on a run of dodgy form, some of that is due to personnel and underperforming substitutes. If Barça had to start Gomes in midfield tomorrow, you would find me in a corner, weeping into a store-bought binky. Instead the Iniesta/Rakitic/Busquets trident will be formidable, particularly as Rakitic is rested. A rested Rakitic is always formidable.
Final scores are always difficult, but a Barça win is easy to predict. There have been problems with form and tactics this season. But those issues are soluble with the right personnel and, frankly, an attitude adjustment. As Carlos Vela said, La Real banked on the laziness of the Barça front three. Big players show up for big matches, and it’s no understatement that the season is on the line for Barça here. Win, and it’s a one-match gap to the top in a league where anything can happen. Lose, and it’s a nine-point chasm at almost the halfway mark of the season. Luis Enrique might say that win or lose, the Liga title isn’t decided in December. But if Barça lose, he’ll just be whistling past the graveyard.