As Zinedine Zidane embarks on his first Clásico as Real Madrid head coach, much of the pre-match intrigue concerns whether the former French great will opt for the same bold team selection that played such a defining role in his predecessor’s dismissal.
Rafael Benitez was already on shaky ground going into the first Clásico of the season last November, having been an unpopular choice to take over in the summer and facing criticism since for his perceived defensive tactics. It was a surprise to many then when he decided to go up against the best team in Europe without a holding midfielder and fielding an attacking quartet of James Rodríguez, Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and a half-fit Karim Benzema. As many could have predicted, it was a disaster. Real Madrid were humbled 4-0 and two months later Benitez was out.
The indications are that Zidane will not make the same mistake at the Camp Nou. Under the former Castilla coach, James has been marginalized, while the club’s one real holding midfielder, Casemiro, has been a regular fixture in the team. Indeed, the last time Casemiro didn’t start Real Madrid lost, to rivals Atlético Madrid.
If the midfield has more solidity, Real Madrid have reason for optimism about the forward line. Bale and Benzema are now both at full fitness and neither were involved in international action, giving them a welcome two-week break.
Unfortunately for Zidane, the international break has cost him the availability of one of his defenders. Raphael Varane aggravated a calf injury while away with France and will now be forced to sit out El Clasico.
“It's a problem which we have no control over,” Zidane said in his pre-match press conference, reports Spanish sports daily AS. “He played the second half [with France] with a few twinges and we still don't know exactly what he's got but he can't be with us for tomorrow's game. He's had two games in a short space of time and this has happened.”
The good news for Zidane is that Sergio Ramos and Pepe are both back from suspension to form a partnership at the heart of defense.
For Barcelona manager Luis Enrique, the team pretty much picks itself. Although defender Jeremy Mathieu suffered a knee injury while away with France, he would have been very unlikely to feature, regardless. That’s because Jordi Alba looks set to recover from an ankle problem suffered when playing for Spain, and Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano are fit to form their regular partnership at center-back.
Enrique will have some concern, though, about the status of his front three. Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar have each played two intense World Cup qualifiers in South America and were not back in training with Barcelona until Thursday evening. It is hardly ideal preparation for a match of such magnitude, although Enrique will hope that the trio’s remarkable chemistry means the impact is minimal. Between them, Messi, Neymar and Suárez have already scored 108 goals this season, helping Barcelona establish a 10-point lead over Real Madrid at the top of La Liga, with Atlético Madrid sandwiched between the two rivals, nine points off the top.
D: Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba
M: Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta
F: Messi, Suárez, Neymar
D: Carvajal, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo
M: Modric, Casemiro, Kroos
F: Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo