A mouth-watering salvo of clashes between La Liga titans Barcelona and Real Madrid are becoming a regular feature in the climax to seasons and this campaign is no different.
However, while Tuesday’s Copa del Rey semifinal conveyed plenty of motivation beyond bragging rights between the two great rivals, on the face of it there will be little but pride at stake in the league meeting this weekend. Given the extent of the animosity between the two sides, that fact does not necessarily mean that the drama will be any less captivating.
After ending Barcelona’s dominance in La Liga last season with a first title since 2008, Madrid have been desperately disappointing this league campaign and find themselves 16 points behind Barcelona, with all hope of retaining the championship having long-since diminished.
With Madrid having the massive second-leg of their Champions League tie with Manchester United firmly on the horizon, next Tuesday, it is being reported that manager Jose Mourinho will make a number of changes to his lineup.
Marca claims that five of the players that helped Los Blancos defeat Barcelona 3-1 in the Copa del Rey second leg—Raphael Varane, Xabi Alonso, Angel di Maria, Mesut Ozil and Gonzalo Higuain—will definitely be rested.
It remains to be seen whether talisman Cristiano Ronaldo will play, although the in-form Portuguese forward will surely be desperate for the opportunity to yet again prove a thorn in Barcelona’s side. Ronaldo scored twice at Camp Nou in the week to take his tally to eight goals in his last seven appearances against the Blaugrana.
For a player once accused of wilting in the biggest games, that’s not bad going.
Ronaldo’s recent form belies to a degree the continued speculation that he is unhappy at the Bernabeu and could even be subject for a massive transfer this summer. That may or may not be the case, but Ronaldo is a player that always remains fully-committed on the pitch and craves to play every game.
It is a similar quality that the other great player of this generation possesses, Lionel Messi. Despite their importance to both sides, both stars are rarely rested and that means that fans can expect yet another duel between the pair on Saturday.
Despite the positions of the two sides in the league, there is little doubt that there will be more scrutiny on Barcelona and Messi.
The Blaugrana’s performances have slipped in recent weeks and while they may have gotten away with it to a large degree in La Liga, they have been punished by both Milan and Madrid in the Champions League and Copa del Rey, respectively. Messi has been a peripheral figure in both those defeats and has unsurprisingly been placed front and center in questions over what’s wrong with Barcelona.
Assistant coach Jordi Roura has defended the Argentinian and, while Messi’s level has dipped somewhat, there are reasons for his recent dip that go beyond just the individual player.
With Alexis Sanchez and Pedro short of form, Messi appears to be suffering from carrying an unhealthy amount of responsibility to make things happen for Barcelona in the final third. The realization of that fact by their opponents has meant that Messi has had even less space to operate in than normal.
It could well be that the Madrid game is used by absent coach Tito Vilanova to try and forge a relationship between Messi and David Villa. The two reportedly do not enjoy the best rapport and Spain’s all-time record scorer has struggled for minutes on the pitch since returning from a broken leg this season.
Yet, Villa’s scoring rate has remained as impressive as ever. Although he has started just nine league games, he has notched up seven goals. The 31-year-old’s ability to get in-behind opponents and lethal finishing could well help to alleviate some of the burden and attention on Messi.
Although he will be missing the creative presence of Xavi, who is set to miss 10 days with injury, Messi will be hoping that the game will allow him to turn the tables on Ronaldo and Madrid as well as getting into his stride for the crucial visit of Milan.