El Clásico on Sunday presents itself as one of the most significant in recent memory. For many it could well be the night Real Madrid secure the 2013/2014 crown, for others it could well be the night Barcelona re-emerge from instability off the field and in turn reignite their title charge.
A four point gap separates the teams coming into the clash at the Bernabéu; the knife edge they currently balance on means one side could be seven points clear or the other one point behind after the game. Seven points in La Liga at this stage, with nine games to go, would be almost insurmountable.
Despite a 7-0 hammering of Osasuna last weekend serving as a perfect warm-up for Barcelona, it will be Madrid that come into the game as the form team and the side in the best physical shape. The latter is as important as the former of course, given what is expected in this gruelling contest. Some hope for Barça, however, comes in Madrid’s record when facing their two main competitors for the title this season; in La Liga, they are yet to win any of them. Their two losses this campaign have come at the hands of Atlético Madrid and Barça, while a recent draw at the Vicente Calderón further compounded that. This game represents a chance for Madrid to emphasise their supposed superiority.
The strides made by Madrid since their inconsistent start to the season have been remarkable. Ancelotti’s system, derided at first, has quickly become the defining feature of this team. It’s impressive that they have only conceded 10.9 shots per game. Barcelona, with the most possession in La Liga (67.1%), have unsurprisingly conceded just 9.2. Possession is their best form of defence, whereas with Madrid it has become about actions over the defensive transition. Madrid as a group fall back better collectively than they have since the highs of José Mourinho’s best years - this is facilitated by characters such as Pepe and Marcelo being in their best form in a long time.
Pepe has been a real force, raking in a 7.43 rating from WhoScored, bettered at Madrid only by attacking players Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. His 2.5 tackles per game are the most at Madrid, as are his 5.3 clearances per game. Anticipation has always been one of Pepe’s strengths. It speaks volumes that two players often seen as too reactionary in their defending have excelled under a calming, defensively shrewd coach like Ancelotti.
Meanwhile, for all the criticism they have received of late, Barcelona have only conceded 22 goals this season - the second best record in La Liga after Atleti. Dani Alves, singled out often for his defensive decline, has produced 3.5 tackles per game this season and made 2.0 interceptions per game. This brings him to the fore as the best-performing defender at the club this season according to WhoScored, with a rating of 7.51. In a game of this magnitude the team needs more from a misfiring Gerard Pique, however.
Iniesta and Modric
These two have arguably been the most important players for their respective teams this season (aside from Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, of course). The pair strike every chord in regards to their teams’ attacking moves, and their authority and influence on games has been decisive. In the case of Andrés Iniesta, it’s been a repossession of form in the midst of personal strife off the field, making his consistency all the more magnificent, with an incredible recent WhoScored rating of 9.3 against Osasuna a particular highlight. In the rout, he was chief destructor (Messi aside), weighing in with a goal and a couple of assists. Given the decline of Xavi’s influence - both physically and tactically - in recent times, Iniesta conducting the beat that Barça march to has become integral to their chances of success.
Meanwhile, Luka Modric has established himself as one of the best midfielders in Europe under Ancelotti, and his 59.5 passes per game is bettered by only Xabi Alonso in the centre of the park. With that, he also makes 1.5 key passes per game too, picking up 6 assists, showing he can play it simple and keep things ticking over while also striking an incisive pass.
How the teams set about stopping their opposing playmaker might well be the most important aspect of the game, especially given the connection each player has with the players that will provide the greatest goalscoring threats. Otherwise, the stability provided by Xabi Alonso and Xavi is still a key facet and while both may not be at a physical peak, they provide familiarity in these games - they know how to approach them better than most. Their mental impact, will be as decisive as a technical one.
Ronaldo and Messi
Just like his team, Ronaldo comes into the game in marginally better form. Still however, there were glimpses of the old Messi in the game against Osasuna – the spark was there again. His three goals there took him to 18 for the season in La Liga, slightly behind his Portuguese rival’s haul of 25 in the same competition (but Messi missed a few games through injury). Messi’s fitness and lack of continuity have stuttered his ability to reach peak performance, while the demands placed upon him when available are extreme. No longer is Messi a final third a player, instead he’s a base player for the beginning of Barça attacks – despite this he has scored 22% of his teams goals. It’s up to someone like Alonso to stub this base play out, leaving Pepe and co. the rest.
Ronaldo, meanwhile, has stood aside for no one despite the arrival of Bale. Instead his contribution has been maintained. His aggression and desire for goals is astounding, and a 32% contribution emphasises his continuing dominance. Ronaldo can play on the periphery and come alive when required, Messi meanwhile will have to run his team from start to finish.
Who do you think will win this weekend's Clásico? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below