El Clásico Will Definitely Decide El Campeón


The first cut is the deepest. In the last seven years, the team that has won the first match between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona - and there has yet to be a draw - has gone on to win the Spanish league. Barcelona won five of them, Real Madrid two. This season, the cut could prove even deeper still. Exaggerated though it may sound, it's hard to avoid the feeling that Saturday's clasico is decisive. Certainly if it goes Real Madrid's way.

This time, the first game is in Madrid (only two of the last seven have been played at the Santiago Bernabéu) and Jose Mourinho's side effectively have a six-point lead (it leads by three points having played a game less). Victory would take Madrid nine points clear. Although that would not be an unassailable lead, it would be, in Cesc Fabregas's words, "very, very hard" to overcome. In a league where both Madrid and Barcelona drop so few points - Madrid have surpassed 90 points in the last two seasons and still not won the league - it's difficult to see anyone relinquishing a lead that size.

If Madrid win the clasico, for Barcelona to still win the league it would need Mourinho's side to lose nine points and be perfect themselves. As Dani Alves put it: "our margin of error has gone." And even if Barcelona concedes no margin, commits no more errors, the title might be gone: Madrid has dropped just five points in 14 games; it would have to drop at least nine in the remaining 23 matches when they dropped just 22 in the whole of last season. Last season, Barcelona dropped just 18 points all year - and four of those came after clinching the title. In Spain, the smallest slip is a big slip.

It is a big if, of course. Since Mourinho took over at Real Madrid, it has won just one of seven clasicos. But Madrid is better equipped to win this clasico than it has been for three years. It is true that Madrid came into last season's clasico in fine form only to lose 5-0. But Mourinho's side is stronger than ever before; Barcelona, meanwhile, has exhibited doubts way from home: in La Liga it has won twice - both of them just 1-0 in Granada and Gijon - drawn twice in the Basque Country and been beaten 1-0 by Getafe.

Even a Barcelona victory, though psychologically huge, would leave Madrid top, while a draw would preserve a six-point lead ... and even that's a bigger lead than Madrid has ever had over Barcelona since Pep Guardiola took over at the Camp Nou. The question, and it is one of many, is: will that be on their minds?

On the face of it, Real Madrid is the side that has to seek a victory - this is its chance, at home, while in the second game at the Camp Nou a draw would be a good result. But in terms of the overall position in the table, although a win may feel definitive, a draw is actually a useful result for Real Madrid and there is no doubt that it knows that. That offers up a potential psychological advantage and a certain degree of tranquillity: it presents two beneficial ways out and means that Madrid's need to chase a win is less than Barcelona's. For Barcelona, winning the clasico is not just an opportunity, it is an obligation. Another question: does even defeat derail Madrid entirely? Or will it be able to maintain the three-point lead it would still have, focusing on an inescapable reality: that it is miles, miles better than everyone else in Spain?

Is it, though? One of the things that makes Madrid such an impressive side is the variety in its play. This season Madrid has had more possession than ever before; it is more combinative and it's playing even further forward. And yet ... Mourinho has played a 4-2-3-1 virtually all season and yet in recent weeks there have been a number of occasions when he has used the 'trivote' - three theoretically deep lying midfielders to provide presence and muscle in midfield. Madrid has also proven more deadly in swift counterattacks than any other phase of the games. Against a team like Barcelona where possession and combination is both more difficult and, arguably, less decisive, the speed and precision of its break, protected by a midfield three, may prove the greatest weapon.

But will Guardiola opt for a little more physical presence in the middle, as he has done on occasions before? Will Iniesta be pushed into the attacking trio, to be replaced by Seydou Keita? If Guardiola wants physical presence it seems unlikely to be Javier Mascherano who he calls upon: the Argentine is now almost definitively a defender. But if everyone is fit, which defenders get left out? Eric Abidal and Alves are certainties if it is a four (and Abidal if it is a three), but what of Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique and Mascherano? Pique's inclusion in the Champions League squad alongside a raft of youth teamers and hardly any of the normal first team was intriguing.

"If I can't hunt with a dog, I will hunt with a cat". Mourinho's remark has become legendary - analyzed and counter analyzed endlessly. This season, it has come more clearly into focus. Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuaín have different qualities: Benzema is far more technical, a better player in the absence of space, when you need tight passing and close skill; Higuaín applies greater pressure and is swifter on the break. will it pressure higher as it has done most of this season or lie a littler deeper waiting for Barcelona, employing the speed of counter-attacks that sets it apart from any side in the world? The decision as to how Madrid play will go a long way to deciding who Madrid play.

All the talk of Cesc to replace Xavi Hernandez and Guardiola surprises us by playing him, like Lionel Messi, as a kind of false no.9. By Cesc's own admission it is a new role that to which he has had to become accustomed but it has also liberated him from some of the tactical duties - not yet assimilated - that come with playing in the midfield three. He has also combined wonderfully with Messi, scoring seven league goals already. That role also offers Cesc the chance to be closer to Xabi Alonso - not to man mark him exactly but certainly to pressure him.

There has been a recent hint of a trend for teams placing a man on Alonso to stymie Madrid's 'salida' - the ability to come out from deep. The tentative conclusion is that it works, up to a point. Cesc up front also offers an alternative to David Villa - left on the bench six times this season and looking off the pace and rather disoriented - plus Alexis Sanchez and Pedro who both come off the back of injuries. Then there's the twenty-year-old Isaac Cuenca, who provides width and crosses unlike anyone else in the side. "The girls may not like him but in his place, on the pitch, he is perfect. He does things so well you crap yourself. He makes everyone around him better," said Guardiola.

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