This weekend the famous Camp Nou hosts the latest fixture of biggest rivalry in world football right now: El Clasico. Barcelona vs Real Madrid. Jose Mourinho vs Pep Guardiola. Cristiano Ronaldo vs Lionel Messi. Two of the biggest clubs in the world, two of the best managers in the world and two of the best players in the world going head-to-head in the most anticipated La Liga fixture of the 2011/12 season.
And what a crucial fixture it could turn out to be. According to the ESPN Soccer Power Index; Real Madrid – with their four-point cushion – currently have an 81.4 percent to win the league. A victory or a draw would be a fantastic result for the league leaders, boosting this percentage dramatically (up to 99.2 percent for a win, 91.1 percent for a draw) while a defeat plummets Mourinho’s chances at a first major trophy to 61.2 percent with four games remaining.
History – and indeed recent Liga form – points to a Barcelona victory being the most likely outcome, with Guardiola’s record an impressive 9-1-4 in his past 14 games against Madrid. That sole defeat was a 1-0 result in the Copa del Rey final last season – and Mourinho is going to need that game tape on repeat while drawing up his latest assault on the Catalan fortress.
Mourinho needs to take what he learnt from his only victory with Madrid over Barcelona and apply it this weekend. Here are three key things I think the Portuguese manager needs to do if Los Blancos are going to win this match:
- Ronaldo needs to start up front.
He’s the second best footballer in the world, he’s a terrific goal scorer, but he’s not wasting his energy tracking Adriano or Alves down the flanks. Madrid are better off playing Coentrao in the left midfield to keep Alves in check, while the defensively-capable Di Maria starts on the right. This leaves Ronaldo saving his energy for lung-bursting counter-attacks against a vunerable Mascherano, Puyol or (returning-from-injury) Pique.
- Discipline and energy in the midfield.
Not hacking at tika-taka-ing Xavi, Cesc, Iniesta and company, drawing cards and critics like in Clasico’s past, but rather a disciplined, determined effort to deny Xavi time on the ball and force Messi to drop deep to find the ball. The further from goal Messi gets possession, the better. Madrid’s key playmaker, Xabi Alonso, has been looking exhausted in recent weeks – his fitness and performance is key Real Madrid getting a positive result.
- Ozil and Kaka on the bench.
Ozil is one of the best playmakers in the world, his off-the-ball movement is exceptional, but he just isn’t suited to starting El Clasico at the moment. Kaka is rediscovering that he is a world-class player, but he isn’t back at a level where he can challenge the best midfield in the world to duel yet.
Along with starting up front, Ronaldo needs to show up with his A-game. Often criticized for not putting out his best performances in the big games, the time is now for the Portuguese international to stamp his class on the pitch and be the game-changing goal scorer his team so desperately needs in the big moments. He can’t waste chances, and he can’t disappear from the game. The talented CR7 needs to be running on all cylinders for the full 90 minutes, and would be well advised to take inspiration from Didier Drogba’s titanic effort in the 1-0 Chelsea win over Barcelona midweek in the Champion League semi-final, where the Ivorian scored the only goal of the match with his teams only shot on target.
Despite both losing by a single goal midweek in their Champions League Semi-Final first legs, Real Madrid and Barcelona will be full of optimism that they can overturn the defecits in the second legs at home, and will be fully focussed on this weekends match. I’m picking this one to be played at a much lower tempo than previous clashes between the two sides, but I’m also picking that Casillas and Valdes will be called into action frequently in an open and energetic contest.
Game Prediction: DRAW (2-2)
Scorers: Messi (2), Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos.