Some of the planet’s top players will be in action when the world’s biggest club rivalry plays out once more on Saturday. Real Madrid will host Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu in the first Clásico of the campaign.
Once again the stakes are high. Barcelona enter the game with a three-point edge over Real Madrid at the top of the Primera Division standings, and have a chance to secure a significant early advantage as they look to retain their title. There are several factors which could play a key role in the outcome of a match that will be seen by millions across the globe.
Will Lionel Messi Start?
It is, of course, the dominant storyline ahead of the season’s first Clásico. Indeed, ever since the four-time Ballon d’Or winner limped off with a knee injury in the match against Las Palmas at the end of September, whether he would be fit to return for the trip to the Bernabeu has been a constant source of discussion. The latest news is that the Argentine is back in training, although it is not yet clear whether he will start on the pitch or on the bench.
After two months out, it is clear he won’t be at his best, and there is plenty of reason why head coach Luis Enrique may be edging toward keeping him in reserve as a substitute. In Messi’s absence, Neymar and Luis Suárez have been exceptional, combining to score 20 of Barcelona’s 23 goals. It was revealing that in a poll with Barcelona-based publication Sport, 79 percent of fans who responded said they would begin with Messi on the bench. With Neymar and Suárez combining so brilliantly it may be best for Barcelona on Saturday, and particularly in the long-term, if Messi is allowed to get back to full fitness before being ushered back.
Karim Benzema’s Fitness
While nobody could mount a serious argument that Karim Benzema is as good as Messi, you could make a very convincing one that it is Benzema’s fitness that will have the greater impact on the outcome on Saturday. The France international’s contribution has long been underrated as Cristiano Ronaldo has understandably grabbed the headlines for his phenomenal scoring feats at the Bernabeu. But Benzema’s presence has been key, with his link-up play and movement so often helping to facilitate Ronaldo’s goals. His unselfishness is especially vital when both Ronaldo and Gareth Bale are in the lineup, as they will be on Saturday.
But there is huge doubt about whether Benzema will be there. He has not played since suffering an injury while playing for his country over a month ago, and during that time he has also had to spend the night in police custody over an investigation into an alleged blackmail plot. The status of both his mental and physical health must be a huge, unwelcome question mark for manager Rafael Benitez.
Benitez’s selection dilemmas stretch far beyond Benzema’s position, however. With a squad built with at least as much of an eye to selling shirts as building a coherent team, getting the balance right has long been a major conundrum for Real Madrid coaches. And, while predecessor Carlo Ancelotti has always been a coach happy to reshape his tactics around the players made available to him, Benitez is far more beholden to the system. He is also a manager perceived as being cautious, which makes him an awkward fit for a club where not just winning, but winning with style is expected.
Even when Real Madrid were top of the league, he was having to fend off accusations that his team were defensively minded. And, while losing players to injury is never an ideal, it is definitely easy to imagine that being without a number of attacking players at various points this season wasn’t altogether bad news for the former Liverpool boss. It certainly allowed him to bring more of a natural defensive balance to the side, particularly with the inclusion of midfield stopper Casemiro. On Saturday, though, even if Benzema is not deemed fit to start, he will be under pressure to field a number of attacking stars, with James Rodríguez the latest one now back available. Whether he bows to that pressure, or continues to go for the less glamorous Casemiro and a team that more naturally fits his identity will be a huge talking point. Win with such a lineup and it will likely be overlooked, but lose, and his critics will have an even bigger stick with which to beat him.
Can Barcelona Continue Shutout Streak?
It went largely overlooked amid the frankly preposterous scoring feats of Messi, Neymar and Suárez , but Barcelona’s defense was also a huge factor in the team’s treble glory. Last season in La Liga, the Catalans conceded just 21 goals in 38 matches, by some distance the best defensive record in the division. This season they conceded more than half that figure in just their first eight matches. Injuries were a big part of those struggles, with the goalkeeper and the back four regularly changing, while Sergio Busquets, a hugely influential presence in front of the defense, has also spent time on the sidelines. It is no coincidence that since the likes of Busquets, Claudio Bravo, Gerard Pique, Jeremy Mathieu and Jordi Alba have been reunited, the statistics have greatly improved. In their last six matches, Barcelona have conceded just once.
It is also true that during that time, they have not come across opponents with anything like the firepower possessed by Real Madrid. An illustration of the attacking quality that has been on show in this fixture over the years has been that, incredibly, no team has been able to keep a clean sheet in the last 18 Clásicos. But the last meeting between the sides saw a superb defensive showing from Pique to help Barcelona to a 2-1 win. Similar resistance shown on Saturday would provide an ideal platform for Barcelona’s attacking stars to do the rest.
Prediction: Trailing Barcelona by three points in the table it is clearly a match that Real Madrid would love to win to even things up. But most of all, it is a match that they really can’t afford to lose with the prospect of a six-point gap opening up. That could mean Benitez utilizing a similarly pragmatic approach as he utilized in two matches against Paris Saint-Germain, which featured just a solitary goal. As for Barcelona, their advantage in the standings means that they can go to the Bernabeu knowing that a draw is far from the worst result, especially if Messi is only fit enough for a place on the bench. A point apiece could well be the outcome.
Predicted score: Real Madrid 1-1 Barcelona
Betting odds (via Oddschecker):
Real Madrid win: 6/4
Barcelona win: 7/4