Barcelona and Real Madrid, tied on league points with eight games left in the season, are going to leave it all on the field when they meet Saturday. Teams finishing level on points in the Spanish league are split by their head-to-head record. Barcelona defeated Real 1-0 when they met in November. Real will want to win by a bigger margin if they hope to win the league, and after shelling out some $320 million U.S. over the summer to buy some of the biggest names in the world, and after failing in every other competition since, Los Blancos have everything to lose in front of their home crowd.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Barcelona striker who scored the only goal of November’s game, is out of the competition with a calf injury he picked up but all eyes are on Lionel Messi, Barcelona’s beautiful Argentine whose amazing season has left even the most devout Madrista slack-jawed, chin-spittled, and smiling with his joy and his genius.
But while the impartial fan would love to see Messi’s brilliance during this game, it’s likely to be a game of tactical attrition in the midfield. Messi is at his most dangerous when he drifts into space between the defensive midfielders and the centerbacks. In the first game against Arsenal, the centerback stepped up to cover Messi, making space for Ibra to move into. The ball was passed on to Ibra’s right foot and the big Swede scored twice. It was beautiful football involving movement off the ball, a passer, and the goal scorer.
In Messi’s four-goal devastation of Arsenal in the second game, he was simply unstoppable.
Real Madrid’s Marcelo is most likely to be tasked with slowing Messi down but the key is prevent the ball from reaching La Liga’s top scorer. That takes place in the midfield. Real’s Alonso and Diarra will work to keep Barcelona’s midfield maestros, Xavi and Iniesta, off their game, pushing them to the wings, bumping, fouling, anything to shut down the passing lanes leading to the strikers.
Real Madrid’s coach, Pelligrini, will also tactically work his men to shut down the supply to Barcelona’s midfield. Every player on Barcelona attacks and their first line of offense is Victor Valdes, their goalkeeper. Madrid’s strikers, Ronaldo and Higuain will hound Valdes and Barcelona’s defenders, Pique and Puyol, harassing them with their speed and stamina, applying constant pressure.
Real Madrid’s early exit from the Champions League showed that they are a collection of some of the world’s greatest footballers, but they play as individuals. They will need to put their egos aside for the greater victory of the team to defeat Barcelona. Without Ibra as a Plan B, Barcelona’s commitment to play The Beautiful Game can struggle.
Check back tomorrow for a complete breakdown of the game.