Posted by: mdegeorge | April 16, 2011

Prepare for El Clasico marathon

Soccer fans are on the precipice of something unprecedented. It’s something so momentous that it’s difficult to translate into terms an American sports fan can understand. Think if the Yankees and Red Sox played like a 15-game series for the American League title, the World Series, and the chance to play for some type of intergalactic Champion of World Champions tournaments.

It sounds ridiculous, but such is the scope of what will take place the next 18 days. Real Madrid and Barcelona, arguably one of the biggest rivalries in European soccer and all of sports, will each play six matches in that span, four of which come against each other across three competitions.

Courtesy of Creative Commons.

The grudge matches kick off today with Los Blancos’ home fixture in La Liga, a competition Barcelona currently leads by eight points and looks poised to capture for a third straight season. At the midweek, they’ll meet at the Mestalla in Valencia to contest the domestic cup final, the Copa del Rey, which Real Madrid has won 17 times and Barca 25. After a break for some average La Liga action (Real Madrid at the Mestalla again for potential Champions League qualifier Valencia, Barca playing host to Osasuna) they meet at the Bernabeu again for the first leg of the Champions League semifinal. Another league encounter on the first weekend of May (Barca-Real Sociedad, Madrid-Real Zaragoza) leads into a Tuesday tilt at the Nou Camp to decide who’ll travel to Wembley for the Champions League final.

The matchup has spawned a slew of stories coming from every conceivable angle. There’s the painfully obvious (Real director general Jorge Valdano saying his side will take things seriously and former Madrid coach Vicente Del Bosque boldly predicting Los Merengues won’t lose 5-0 as they did in the encounter in the fall), the interesting commentary (Cristiano Ronaldo on Barca’s humanity and Barca coach Pep Guardiola embracing the challenge of his rival) to the downright ridiculous (more predicting octopuses!!) And of course there’s the antics of Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho, including statements like, “I’ll train with a ten-man team, as refs usually send one of my players off when I play against Barcelona” before a vow of silence that precipitated a journalist protest.

First, there are the tactics:

Barcelona, not to rip off Popeye, is what it is: A pulsing, possession-based midfield that thrives on short, precise passing and athletic, versatile attackers that is arguably one of the most effective units at imposing its will the game has ever seen. Venturing a guess as to the side they’ll put out week after week isn’t terribly difficult. In fact, they may make as few as two changes from the side that trounced Real 5-0 in November at the Nou Camp, both of which come out of injury. Carles Puyol is apparently fit enough to make the squad today after being out since Jan. 22 with a knee injury, though he may not start alongside Gerard Pique. If he doesn’t, Gabriel Milito is the ready-made replacement, though Guardiola experimented with both Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets in central defense in each of the legs of the Champions League quarterfinal with Shakhtar Donetsk, with the latter the preferred option. The return of Puyol comes at the perfect time, with Mascherano suspended for the La Liga contest for yellow cards. The other change comes from the ongoing illness of Eric Abidal at left back, with Adriano deputizing there opposite of Dani Alves, who appears to be surging ahead of Maicon as the best right back in Brazil and the world.

Beyond that, it’s the same old gang. Either Mascherano or Busquets will be flanked by Xavi and Andres Iniesta in a 4-3-3. Pedro and Lionel Messi will likely bring up the wings with David Villa cutting the lonely striker figure. It’s a team that is somewhat thin: the bench options include limited striking help with the injury of Bojan Krkic, and the only attack-minded possibilities will likely be Ibrahim Afellay and Jeffren Suarez.

Real Madrid on the other hand is an enigma to say the least. Who pairs with Pepe in central defense is an open question. Ricardo Carvalho is underwhelming to say the least, leaving either Raul Albiol or necessitating drawing Alvaro Arbeloa or Sergio Ramos from the wings. Despite the unrest, they’ve still managed to surrender a mere four goals in their last 13 matches in all competitions.

Their preferred 4-2-3-1 formation didn’t fare well last time, with Mesut Ozil, one of the outside prongs of that advanced threesome, being soundly beaten time and again. He may find himself on the bench if they instead opt for a 4-3-3 look this time around, with a more defensive-minded player like Lassana Diarra in the center between Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira. That leaves three (really two attacking spots once Ronaldo is accounted for) up for grabs. Does newly healthy Kaka find a spot? (Not in the La Liga contest, I think). Does Angel Di Maria take the spot of Ozil? Or does Mourinho opt for more than one of the three healthy strikers (Karim Benzema, Gonzalo Higuain, Emmanuel Adebayor) he has at his disposal? Either way, Real Madrid’s need for three central midfielders to adequately contain Barca’s midfield motion doesn’t bode well.

However the formations shake out, expect major changes from game to game thanks to the referees book. The last affair became a heated encounter with 13 yellow cards and one red handed out; eight of those yellows and the red were shown to the team of a disillusioned Mourinho. The feistiness is more likely to get under the skin of the underdog Real but could most adversely affect the thin Barca club.

Beyond the hype there are matches to be played, and the three different competitions introduce different dynamics to each meeting, from the anything-goes Copa Del Rey final to the more restrained and cagey first leg of Champions League. So let’s break things down one match at a time.

April 16, La Liga at the Bernabeu: Barcelona’s last lost in the league was their first, a surprising 2-0 loss at home to Hercules in Week 2 of the season. It has only dropped four points away from home in 15 matches this season, winning 13 and drawing two and allowing an astonishing six goals. Madrid’s home record was spotless until two weeks ago, when their loss to Sporting Gijon meant the first league home loss for a Mourinho-led team in an unfathomable nine years.

You might think that shifts the advantage to Barcelona. But the reality is that even a draw goes a long way towards salting away a title for Barca. Sharing the spoils in Madrid would put them up eight points with six matches to play, a nearly insurmountable difference. That’s not to say that it wouldn’t want an impressive win to punctuate the season and all but guarantee a title. That doesn’t mean Barca will be conservative, as their game plan rarely changes. It just means a tie match in the 75th minute might warrant the introduction of a holding midfielder like Seydou Keita rather than a striker like Jeffren.

Madrid will know it has to go for it. If they do opt for a Diarra-Alonso-Khedira deep-lying trio to start, expect the introduction of a fresh-legged Ozil or Di Maria for one of that trio at halftime if one or the other doesn’t get that start. If they choose to stick with a 4-2-3-1, ineffectiveness out of the likes of Ozil, Kaka, or Di Maria could mean substitution for a striker quickly.

April 20, Copa del Rey at the Mestalla: If Mourinho has any tricks left in his bag, this is the time to release them in what may be their best shot at a trophy. Madrid will feel it deserves the prize, having traveled a much tougher road to the final that included stops at Sevilla and Atletico Madrid. Mourinho will also likely see it as a crucial tipping point in the confidence battle, something for the loser to stew on for a week before their UCL tilt. You may see Madrid get a little plucky here: Should it fail to win the La Liga contest due to a lack of offense, perhaps a three-pronged attack featuring two strikers and Ronaldo may be in order from the start. With the prospect of a league title certainly a distant prospect, the earlier meeting could involve a lot of feeling out by the Madridistas as an early attempt at winning its first King’s Cup since 1993, a remarkable drought.

April 27, Champions League semifinal first leg at the Bernabeu: Barcelona could have its advantage in this series paid forward. If it’s able to escape Madrid with a league win, the Blaugrana will likely name a mostly reserve squad for the trip to bottom-half-of-the-table Osasuna, relying on the youngsters to grab three points while Los Blancos battle it out with Valencia in an exchange that could place them on the brink of mathematical elimination.

Barca just has a knack of scoring away from home in first leg Champions League ties. In five such matches under Guardiola, it has yet to fail to score. Three of those times, the away goal was the match’s first tally, and Barca advanced in four of those five instances, including this year’s dismissal of Arsenal in the Round of 16 thanks in large part to a David Villa strike in London.

Mourinho’s teams are 8-4 all-time when hosting the first leg of a knockout round, including earning three match wins en route to three fixture wins in last season’s Champions’ League title with Inter Milan, his second overall (FC Porto 2004). That triumph last season included an impressive 3-1 win over Guardiola’s men at the San Siro from which the Catalans couldn’t recover. Those favoring Real Madrid point toward this triumph as emblematic of the Special One’s ability, especially at the expense of Guardiola. But it should also be recognized that Mourinho this season lacks an out-and-out striker as hot as Diego Milito, a midfield orchestrator as adept as Wesley Sneijder, a central midfield sheriff as authoritative as Esteban Cambiasso, or a central defender with the poise of Lucio upon which to make his stand. What he does possess, though, is a squad that is in its first UCL Semi since 2003 and will probably be varying degrees (ranging from very to mega-very) of ticked off at Barcelona by this time.

May 3, Champions League semifinal second leg at the Nou Camp: Two games at the Bernabeu and one at the Mestalla gives this encounter the feel of a homecoming for the Blaugrana. It may be the chance to return as conquering heroes, a trophy in tow, another well on the way and a chance to play for a third. They’ll probably have some work to do from the first leg, perhaps a 1-0 or 2-1 win for Madrid, but they’ll certainly have something to celebrate.

The final verdict: It’s clear that Barca is the better team, but winning four matches against anyone over such a short period is daunting. They have to slip up at some point. I see Barca eking out an entertaining draw, something like 2-2, in La Liga today. The Catalans aren’t de-prioritizing the Copa del Rey, but I find it difficult to believe Mourinho won’t devise something to give his team a win in a competition they have been woeful in lately. That leaves Champions League. Los Merengues could take home a win in their home leg, but Barca, as history dictates, will at least get the away goal that will form the foundation of its two-leg triumph and set up a rematch of the 2009 final with Manchester United at Wembley.

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