There are a number of matches worth watching this weekend: the Manchesters facing off Saturday in the FA Cup semifinal is certainly worth your time, as are Udinese at Napoli and Arsenal hosting Liverpool on Sunday. But these games pale in comparison to the first of four el clásicos taking place over the next three weeks.
Saturday’s match at the Bernabéu won’t have quite the impact on the league table that Madridistas would’ve hoped for at the beginning of the season (specifically after that 5-0 spanking at the Camp Nou), but even with the league gone and the teams meeting in the Copa del Rey final next wednesday you can expect a full-blooded affair. Mourinho went full psychological battle this afternoon when he sat silently next to his assistant during a press conference, refusing to answer any questions himself. A classic tactic by the Portuguese, who prefers to draw attention to himself around big matches rather than leave his players open to excessive scrutiny.
As for fitness, Barcelona sorely miss Puyol and Abidal in defense and have looked vulnerable when teams have pushed past their high pressing midfield. Madrid have a few absentees in Lassana Diarra and Pedro Leon, but they do have Higuain and Benzema fit again, and Adebayor didn’t look half-bad against Spurs mid-week.
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.
Though this isn’t necessarily the most popular prediction, both in the CultFootball offices and around the world in general, I think we’ll be looking at a 3-1 Madrid win. Truly this game could go either way. Both coaches are great tacticians, and both teams are really a joy to watch, but I’m a little tired of Barcelona’s dominance.