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:
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.