As it does nearly every season, Barcelona and Real Madrid’s Clásico meeting on Sunday will heavily influence the stretch run toward the La Liga title. The clubs sit first and second, respectively, in the league table, trending in opposite directions.
Barça has failed to win just twice in 2015, 1-0 defeats to Real Sociedad and Málaga, while Real has won just once in its last four and has five losses since the new year. Barcelona’s 6-1 win over Rayo Vallecano on March 8, combined with Madrid’s 1-0 loss to Bilbao the previous day, saw Barça take over at the top of La Liga for the first time since November.
Likely starting XIs:
While Real goes through turmoil, nearly losing its comfortable lead after the first leg of the Champions League round of 16 to a much younger and less experienced Schalke side, Barcelona seems to have come through its own crisis of form unscathed. Heading into a home Clásico after defeating Manchester City much more comfortably at the same stage in midweek, Barça is favored to win Sunday despite shorter rest.
Every player but Ivan Rakiti? and Dani Alves played the full 90 minutes on Wednesday, but with three full days between two home matches and El Clásico not kicking off until late Sunday night, expect the same starting XI. The only likely change is goalkeeper Claudio Bravo resuming his usual league duties in place of Champions League goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen.
Barcelona will play its traditional 4-3-3 at Camp Nou with a single pivot in midfield. Sergio Busquets’ ankle ligament troubles mean Javier Mascherano should play as the central anchor, a role he fills in rotation with Busquets when both are healthy.
The creative midfield pairing changes frequently, but Rakiti? and Andrés Iniesta usually line up together for manager Luis Enrique in important matches. Ahead of them, Neymar, Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi are the most obvious lineup choices.
Madrid’s star-studded front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale should start together for just the second time against Barcelona. Their only other joint appearance in a Clásico match came in Madrid’s 4-3 league loss in this fixture a year ago.
They headline manager Carlo Ancelotti’s typical hybrid system between a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, with Ronaldo tucked inside next to Benzema and Bale flared wide right in a more traditional wing role. Isco starts central but pulls left to fill the gap Ronaldo leaves defensively, and left back Marcelo bombs down the flank regularly to support the attack.
Toni Kroos will be Real’s primary distributor, but he’s far from a traditional defensive midfielder, so Isco and Luka Modri? will have to track back to support. Modri? should make his third appearance and second start since his thigh injury on international duty in November.
Perhaps Ancelotti’s most contentious decision will come in goal, where club captain Iker Casillas is almost guaranteed to start despite quickly waning form. Keylor Navas took over against former club Levante in Real’s last league game, but all indications are that was just another token appearance for the Costa Rican.
Collective vs. individualistic mentalities
Barcelona and Real Madrid’s very nature as teams are on opposite poles. Real relies on its individuals to come through, while Barça’s collective mentality leaves no room for massive egos.
Ronaldo and Messi perfectly personify the clubs’ differences. Both have a penchant for flashiness, but Messi’s usually comes with a pass to an open teammate for whom he has created space, while Ronaldo tends to work for himself.
Madrid’s purchasing philosophy, Florentino Pérez’s Galáctico strategy begun in his first term as club president and continued in his second, gives Ancelotti unending puzzle pieces to fit together. Barcelona emphasizes bringing players through its La Masia academy and instilling the same style throughout the club pyramid.
As such, expect a fair amount of individualism around the penalty area from Madrid as it tries to score, also utilizing its superior athleticism. On the other end, Neymar, Messi and Suárez will try to combine with the midfielders and overlapping fullbacks to create a pinball effect.
Still, Madrid won’t eschew team play for all-out Route 1 football, as it is just as capable of producing mesmerizing combinations. Rather than attacking through the zone on top of the penalty area, though, Real is more likely to drive toward the endline and swing crosses into dangerous spots in front of goal.
Real is one of the most tactically malleable teams on the continent. It can win through out-possessing opponents or absorbing and counterattacking when it has less control of the match.
Barcelona’s weakness in defending set pieces and Real’s ability in dead-ball situations could also produce opportunistic chances for the visiting Madridistas, even if Barça keeps the majority of possession.
Anything can happen in 90 minutes
Intrigue never runs short in El Clásico. Contrasting clubs with differing schools of thought always offer unpredictable battles in any 90-minute period, especially when coupled with the passion of an intense rivalry and major title implications.
The last time Madrid dropped two of three matches, it rattled off six without a loss. Real might be struggling, but a win in Camp Nou could kickstart a second-half surge that still sees it lift two major trophies before summer.
Meanwhile, Barça will want to avoid a return of crisis talks that descended with heavy questioning of Enrique’s abilities earlier this season. Soon after, the team completed an 11-match winning streak that tied Pep Guardiola’s record at the club, which remains in contention for the treble.
Modern football is a game of short memory and quick judgment, but the momentum and milieu of a win in El Clásico lasts a bit longer than the average kind of victory in 2015. That’s the enigmatic prize up for grabs on Sunday.