It’s that time of the year again; the time when Barcelona and Real Madrid, two of the best teams in football right now, square off in El Clasico. There is no question that this is the biggest game not just in football, but in all of sports. Yes people, even greater than the Yankees vs. Red Sox, the Celtics vs. the Lakers, and even the Giants vs. the Cowboys. No game in the world has as much passion, history, and plain quality as El Clasico, with perhaps only Italy’s Milan Derby and Argentina’s Superclasico (Boca Juniors vs. River Plate) the only rivalries in all of sports that can even challenge El Clasico. Typically, Barcelona and Real Madrid usually meet in the Clasico going from strength to strength in both La Liga and the Champions League, meaning every Clasico is usually a defining point of the season for both clubs. This Clasico is no exception to the latter, but it is the contrasting circumstances that both clubs come into this Clasico that is unique from previous seasons. Barcelona have been near perfect this season, with Barcelona being able to boast perfect starts in La Liga and the UEFA Champions League. Recent away wins in tough fixtures against Sevilla and Benfica have shown that Barcelona do indeed have the mettle required of champions. Spearheaded by Xavi’s creativity in midfield, Iniesta’s flair, and Messi’s genius, Barcelona have looked impeccable under Tito Vilanova, seemingly coercing fans to forget about Pep Guardiola. Meanwhile, Real Madrid have looked awful at times this year, with only a perfect start in the Champions League representing something for Jose Mourinho to smile about. That, and the form of a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, who has began the season with 10 goals in 8 games in both the Champions League and La Liga. Despite the best efforts of Ronaldo, Real Madrid still find themselves languishing in 6th place, even behind fierce local rivals Atletico Madrid. The reality is that Higuain and Benzema’s finishing has been atrocious so far, Ozil and Modric are seemingly suffering a dip in form at the same time, and Real Madrid’s backline has looked very suspectible at times this year. They now find themselves 8 points behind Barclelona already and a loss in the Clasico may spell the end of their title hopes this early in the season. However, a win would put Real Madrid’s title challenge back on track.
One of the key concerns going into the season for Vilanova and Barcelona was their lack of depth at the center-back position. One injury to eithier Puyol, Pique, or Mascherano would put Barcelona’s backline into dissaray, injuries to two of them would throw the Barcelona backline into complete chaos. Well, Vilanova’s worst fears were realized when Carles Puyol went down with a nasty injury against Benfica in the Champions League midweek, and with Gerard Pique already injured, Vilanova will be forced to field a makeshift backline against Real Madrid. This will certainley be a baptism of fire for Barcelona’s new acquistion, Alex Song, who will be forced to pair with Mascherano in central defense in the Clasico. Now, don’t get me wrong, Song is without a doubt a quality midfielder, but, as a defender, Song may lack the tactical discipline and concentration required to be a quality central defender. This was evident last week against Sevilla, as Alvaro Negredo exposed Song’s tactical indiscipline by running in from behind and shrugging him off before expertley chipping Valdes for Sevilla’s second goal. The reality is that Barcelona’s makeshift backline will have a hard time keeping the kind of high line that has been the trademark of their tiki-taka style of play. Against Real Madrid’s devestating ability to play on the counter, this could potentially be fatal. However, with the way that Real Madrid’s midfield has been sorely lacking in creativity all year, Barcelona should still be able to control the tempo of the game and relieve any potential pressure Barcelona’s makeshift backline could experiecie. As long as Barcelona can dominate possession of the ball and press Real Madrid high up the pitch, they will create chances, and with players like Messi, David Villa, Fabregas, Xavi, and Iniesta at your disposal, you can bet on the those chances ending up in the back of the net and Ray Hudson screaming one of his famous puns.
With Real Madrid suffering from no injury problems whatsoever, with Sami Khedira being only a slight doubt, Real Madrid seemingly have luck on their side. The question isn’t whether Real Madrid will have their best players on the pitch at the Camp Nou, it’s whether those players actually show up. If their recent form is anything to go by, they won’t show up. The reality is that Real Madrid have seemingly lacked the will to win, with Ronaldo looking like the only player who is willing to put in the extra effort to win. Perhaps this is why Mourinho famously claimed that “I have no team” after Real Madrid’s 1-0 loss to Sevilla earlier in the season. However, if Mourinho can get his team to show up, they will win this game. Barcelona’s makeshift backline will simply become overwhelmed by the speed which Real Madrid deploy on the counter. If Real Madrid actually show up, look for the likes of Ronaldo, Ozil, and Benzema to have a field day with the inexperiencied and undisciplined Alex Song. Of course, that’s if Real Madrid actually show up, and, that’s a big “if”.
A loss for Real Madrid in the Clasico would leave them 11 points behind Barcelona in La Liga, virtually ending their title challenge in La Liga after just 7 games. Realistically, Real Madrid need a win in the lion’s den that is the Camp Nou, with 5 points being much more practical to overcome than 8 points. With the way Barcelona have been playing, it looks like they will not drop to many points against the weaker opposition in La Liga, meaning that Real Madrid have to take every chance they get to close the gap. Those best chances are the Clasicos. Real Madrid truly have it all to do, having to go to the passionate enviornment of Barcelona’s Camp Nou and win despite their awful current form. While this Clasico represents a golden oppurtunity for Real Madrid to get thier season back on track, it also represents a golden oppurtunity for Barcelona to effectivley silence their bitter rivals and for Vilanova to truly endear himself to the fans. While El Clasico represents one of many chances Barcelona will have to effectivley end the title race in La Liga, El Clasico truly represents the last chance saloon for Real Madrid in La Liga. However, with their current form, I don’t see Real Madrid taking it.
Prediction: Barcelona 3-2 Real Madrid