Just when you thought El Clásico couldn’t get any more heated, Pep Guardiola took the rivalry to 11 in his press conference yesterday in Madrid. But the real battle of Mourinho contra Guardiola will take place on the pitch later today, with the 1st leg of the Champions League semifinal. It will remarkably be the 3rd meeting in the past 11 days between Guardiola’s Barcelona and Mourinho’s Real Madrid (following the tense 1-1 draw in a La Liga match on April 16 and Madrid’s dramatic 1-0 Copa del Rey victory a week ago), and the real battle will be the tactics the two managerial masterminds deploy today, in light of the past two matches–and in light of key absences for both squads. Here’s what you need to get ready for today’s match:
If you have time for nothing else, open up this post of ours from last November, containing both sides’ squad lists; also open up Marca’s very cool interactive graphic showing “Los sistemas de Mourinho y de Guardiola“–though given the injuries and suspensions, today’s starting XIs will not be any of the ones shown there. Keep reading..
If you’ve got more time, and haven’t been following our El Clásico coverage, catch up on last November’s initial La Liga meeting here and here (“This game more than any other has divided the CultFootball brain trust, with one faction supporting the brilliant arrogance of the establishment side and the other hoping the subversives from the north can one-touch their way a million times to victory.”). That match of course produced a stunning 5-0 victory for the Catalan club–what we called “Tiki-taka to La Manita” (that post includes two sets of video highlights from that instant classic El Clásico).
Like the rest of the footballing world, we’ve got loco for El Clásico over the past two weeks. Our preview of this four-game series is here. These words still hold true–but a couple key names mentioned here will be absent today due to injury (Iniesta for Barça, Khedira for Madrid):
So which team is in better form? Through most of the season it was clearly Barcelona, but they’ve seemed a tad shaky of late while Madrid are looking pretty comfortable on the pitch. Madrid have also had an entire season to learn Mourinho’s defensive principles…then again Barça tend to have their way with what seem at the outset to be the most prepared of teams.
The key to a Madrid victory will be to limit Messi’s time with the ball. When his teammates have looked less than otherworldly this season, the little Argentine has stepped up his game to amazing levels. Very often it’s some combination of Iniesta and Xavi that pop open the defenses, with Messi finishing the movement, but Khedira and Alonso will collapse on them very quickly and it’ll be up to Lionel in isolation (and also finding Villa moving off the shoulder of his defender).
For Barcelona to walk away with the win they’ll have to retreat quickly when they lose possession (Madrid have a very quick counter attack) and not give Özil any time on the ball. The young German is a key link between back and front, and with him contained Barça can maintain their high pressing and look to turn the ball over quickly, as they do.
After the Copa del Rey, the observation that Barcelona seems a tad shaky while Madrid is looking increasingly comfortable holds a fortiori–as well as the tactical observations about Messi on the ball and Madrid on the counterattack, with Madrid’s defensive midfield “trivote” tasked with collapsing on the former, and Özil certainly a key to the latter. See our multipart film session on the Copa del Rey final for illustrations of these points.
Madrid’s trivote in the previous two matches consisted of Khedira, Xabi Alonso, and Pepe. With Khedira out, look for Lass Diarra to step into the midfield. Might we see Kaka make an appearance in the midfield, and/or Higuain up front? The Brazilian midfielder and Argentine striker have both been absent this season due to injuries, but both played well over the weekend in Madrid’s 6-3 blowout of Valencia.
For Barcelona, their stalwart defender Puyol returns to lineup, but both Brazilian left wingbacks (Adriano and Maxwell) have been left back in Barcelona due to injury. Add to this Eric Abidal’s continued absence (due surgery in March to remove a tumor from his liver, although remarkably he returned to training this week), and Barcelona will again be forced into a suboptimal lineup in defense. Look for Mascherano to stay in the starting XI, though it’s not clear if he’ll be playing wingback. ZonalMarking speculates that Puyol will play on the left, while Mascherano will stay in the center. In either case, Barça likely won’t get the forward width they get from Adriano or Maxwell–but that may actually be a good thing, as Puyol or Mascherano will stay home and be more likely to prevent Madrid counterattacks up that wing. Hence, look for Madrid to concentrate even more on getting behind Dani Alves on the other side of the field–the diMaria-Alves matchup there is key.
Not having Iniesta in the midfield is of course a huge loss. In his stead, it will likely be the Malian Seydou Keita who pairs with Xavi and Busquets–though we may also see the 20-year old “wonderkid” Thiago Alcantara in action. Up front it will be the usual trio of Villa, Messi and Pedro.
We leave you with video of Pep’s presser yesterday–we are confident we will be using the phrase “el puto jefe y puto amo” with regularity in the future: