Real Madrid will be hoping there is no European hangover when Zinedine Zidane prepares his side to welcome Barcelona to Valdebebas in the latest La Liga Clasico this weekend.
Los Blancos expressed a cut-throat appetite in midweek, sealing an emphatic 3-1 first leg victory over Liverpool in the Champions League quarter-finals, but attention must now turn to domestic matters before the return leg at Anfield next week.
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A date with eternal adversaries Barça is not the ideal fixture between two huge Champions League matches, but Zidane is a man for the occasion and will be relishing the showdown in the capital, looking to remain firmly in the slipstream of current La Liga pace-setters Atletico Madrid.
Atleti looked to have run away with it earlier this season, but the chasing pack have capitalised on their recent shortcomings since the turn of the year and the gap is now a too-close-for-comfort three points between Real in third, Barça in second and Diego Simeone’s men in first.
Once a speck in Atleti’s rearview mirror, Ronald Koeman has turned the tide, setting up a mouthwatering El Clasico on Saturday.
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1. Predicted Real Madrid XI
Real Madrid had a number of injury issues to contend with for their European clash against Liverpool, not least to starting centre-back duo Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, but Zidane produced a tactical masterclass to restrict Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane to just one away goal with his makeshift defence.
Nacho and Eder Militao formed a sturdy acquaintanceship, while Lucas Vazquez, a winger by trade, continued his role as an auxiliary right-back in place of the injured Dani Carvajal, performing the duty with merit on Tuesday night. Ferland Mendy was equally impressive on the opposite flank.
The illustrious midfield trident of Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos were naturally dominant and telepathically in sync, providing the nucleus and heartbeat of the side so Karim Benzema, Vinicius and Marco Asensio could run riot up the turf. It’s a lineup Zidane will likely stay true to for this weekend’s game.
Eden Hazard remains sidelined, while the convalescing dynamo, Federico Valverde, collected valuable minutes against Jurgen Klopp’s men, entering the fray late on. If Zidane does tinker, it may be with Valverde, potentially keeping Modric on ice for the visit to Merseyside, but in truth, the Frenchman will not be taking this Clasico lightly, particularly with how tight things are at La Liga’s summit. So expect a full strength team.
2. Predicted Barcelona XI
Ansu Fati and Philippe Coutinho remain long-term absentees, the latter of whom may not play again this season, and Gerard Pique faces a race for fitness to be available for this weekend’s match, but Koeman may be able to call upon Sergi Roberto.
Koeman’s latest tactical set-up has ‘Total Football’ written all over it, with Frenkie de Jong, an adherent of Cruyffian principles having progressed through the Ajax academy, recently taking on an esoteric role as a libero in the heart of Barcelona’s defence, a role once perfected by his manager during the club’s ‘Dream Team’ era.
However, De Jong has since issued a message to Koeman, expressing his desire to play in midfield, though he remains happy to fill in where the team needs. “I prefer playing in central midfield, but if it is best for the team that I play at the back or in another position, I’ll do it,” De Jong said.
“We changed the system today and I’ve played in many positions.”
The recent tweak has yielded some huge results in the past few weeks, including a 6-1 win over Real Sociedad, so Koeman may keep the experiment going, with this latest match-up the real acid test for determining just how effective the system is against elite opposition.
3. Benzema to avoid dreaded double-digit duck
Benzema has been uncharacteristically impotent up front in the previous nine Clasicos, firing a blank in each of those contests, stretching back to the Supercopa de Espana in August 2017. In fact, you would have to go back to April 2016 for the Frenchman’s last goal against Barcelona, a staggering 10 league games ago.
Indeed Benzema’s general role in Real Madrid’s system far transcends his ability to just find the back of the net, but for a striker of such ruthless proficiency and instinct, his recent record against the Catalans will no doubt remain a concern for those of a Los Blancos persuasion.
But, the 33-year-old has refused to let ageing legs define his season, instead exhibiting a prolific streak that has seen his name sit firmly in the ‘Pichichi’ race for top goalscorer in La Liga (18 goals), while his further six assists means he has directly contributed to 24 goals in just 25 appearances this term.
Such final-third efficiency was on display against Liverpool as he battered Klopp’s threadbare defence from pillar to post, holding the ball up with an authoritative air while creating purposeful runs to creates pockets of space, and such an approach could yield a goal this weekend, avoiding 10 in a row without a goal against Barça.
4. Messi to turn provider
Lionel Messi may take issue with the above statement that Benzema is “firmly in the Pichichi race” as the diminutive genius is currently leading the charts with 23 goals, five above his French coeval, and if his career trajectory is anything to go by (which it is) that chasm could widen significantly in the coming weeks.
And Messi, like Benzema, is a forward who doesn’t just let his goals do the talking, instead the Barça captain is a world-class attacking factotum, chipping in with finishes by the bucketful but also turning playmaker when the opportunity arises, which has culminated in eight assists this term.
Even more incredibly, Messi currently ranks first for chances created in La Liga this term (63), big chances created (17) and has the highest expected assists (9.61). Should he provide two assists this weekend, then he will become just the fifth player to record double figures for both goals and assists in Europe’s top five leagues this season.
Among those in that exclusive 2020/21 club so far are Harry Kane, Bruno Fernandes, Thomas Muller and recent inductee Iago Aspas. It may be a tall order for Messi to turn provider twice against Real, but he will have a say in this contest, and that could mean at least one defence-splitting assist.
5. Casemiro to boss midfield battle (and get booked)
Few players have encapsulated the Zidane era more than Casemiro, the vital artery of Real. He may not exude the graceful ball-playing aura of his midfield teammates, Modric and Kroos, but performs his specialised role with distinction and allows the aforementioned duo to operate with great fluidity.
The Brazilian’s tackle-heavy exploits and terrier-like industry are two key traits that weave Zidane’s system together. Without Casemiro to mop up, screen horizontally and anchor the midfield, Modric and Kroos would have a heavier burden to defend, taking away from their tempo-setting qualities.
It’s the role that goes slightly under the radar, but one that is absolutely vital for Zidane, and one Barça are probably dreading more than any other opponent this weekend. Casemiro’s function will be to frustrate and thwart Barça’s cyclical waves of attack, by hook or by crook, and that gamesmanship will be key without Ramos there to embrace his role as ultimate Clasico pantomime villain.
Such has been Casemiro’s influence at the base of Zidane’s midfield three that he currently ranks second for interceptions in La Liga this campaign (58), fifth for tackles (68) and sits in the top 10 for most yellow cards received this season (eight), including three in his last five Clasicos.