Side Lowe has described it as the biggest club of all time. The array of talent on show is simply staggering. Last year El Clasico might have laid claim to having more stars than any other game in history. Now Ibrahimovic has been replaced by Villa. Weak links in the Real Madrid squad such as Gago have been replaced by the likes of Ozil and Di Maria. Until the latter stages of the Champions League, this is the biggest game of the season.
Much of the game will depend on how Mourinho sets out his side. Given that Madrid already lead Barcelona in the table and that La Liga is decided on head to head results rather than goal difference, the Special One might be willing to settle for a draw and try and beat the Catalans in Madrid. On the other hand, beating Pep’s Golden Boys on their home soil is a prize too big to ignore. Last season with Inter, Mourinho set his side out to give the ball away and not concede. The difference here is that he will not have a two goal cushion from the first leg to rely on. The attention on Inter progressing has obscured the fact that Barcelona beat them in Camp Nou.
If Mourinho wants to match Barcelona then he is likely to stick with the same front four that he has for most of the season. Higuain as the focal point supported by Di Maria, Ronaldo and Ozil. This leaves Alonso and Khedira as the defensive screen, with Alonso also having a quarterback role, spraying passes forward for the others.
However Santapelota and Zonalmarking have suggested that Higuain will be dropped and Ozil will operate as a false number 9 in order to allow Lassana Diarra to come in alongside Khedira and Alonso. The advantage of the false number 9 has been discussed at length elsewhere, but the secondary benefit that dropping Higuain provides is that Barcelona would (if they played their normal trio) be a man short in midfield. With Alonso sitting deep alongside Khedira and Diarra the Barcelona midfielders will have to close down the space inside Madrid’s half so as to deny the Spaniard the space to pick out team mates all game while being conscious of Ozil dropping to dictate play as well. A balance between closing down the deep-lying playmaker and not giving the attackers space is a very tricky one indeed.
One solution for Guardiola is to play Mascherano as a proper holding player and Keita alongside Xavi higher up the pitch. Potentially this means that Iniesta is either dropped or pushed out to the wing where he is less effective in place of Pedro Rodriguez but it would mean more energy in the Barcelona centre.
The danger is that both sides are overly conscious of the others attacking threat and set out to nullify rather than threaten. Two deciding factors will be which side is more efficient in pressing the opposition and secondly, although linked, is whether Xavi or Alonso manages to dictate the play. In April Xavi ran the show and Madrid were incapable of disrupting his metronomic passing.
Ronaldo Vs. Alves
One of the most fascinating personal battles will be Ronaldo against Dani Alves. Alves is possibly the best right back in the world but Ronaldo is the second most dangerous player on the planet. The obvious question will be whether Alves can cope against Ronaldo but secondly whether Ronaldo will be willing to track back and help if Alves goes on the offensive. Expect Messi to be double or possibly triple marked but if Alves manages to provide effective support then the Argentine will still find room to threaten. Marcelo is not the best defensively and he will need help to prevent Messi causing problems. It will be much more surprising if Madrid commit their full backs than Barcelona and so Ronaldo should not expect the same overlapping help as Messi.
Overall it is likely that Barcelona will dominate the possession and Madrid will counter at speed but whether Barcelona will be able to effectively use the possession against deep-lying midfielders is the question. Sadly this game doesn’t look like a high scorer. Expect it to be decided by a single goal.