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Dublin: 5 °C Sunday 16 December, 2018

Real Madrid v Barcelona: 5 talking points ahead of El Clasico

Will Suarez start and can the hosts’ irresistible attacking unit breach a defence that hasn’t conceded a league goal this season?

Luis Suarez

The Uruguayan can make his long-awaited return to action against Real but it remains to be seen whether or not he’ll start. Though Luis Enrique has effectively rubbished any concerns about the attacker’s fitness, many feel he’ll still be kept in reserve and used from the bench.

Given the pressure-cooker nature of the occasion, it may be too much to expect Suarez to make his debut at the Bernabeu in El Clasico and excel, regardless of how much he tends to thrive in big games.

Spain Soccer Friendly Suarez Source: Manu Fernandez/AP/Press Association Images

Long-term, it seems an obvious move to bring him in as a direct replacement for Pedro who has scored just once from his five starts this season. Should Suarez be named on the bench, expect him to enter the fray between the 60th and 70th minute. Pedro doesn’t tend to last longer than that.

Can the Barca defence hold out for another 90 minutes?

A little less than a month ago, Barcelona went to Paris St-Germain and were humbled, losing 3-2. It was the first time that the Catalans conceded three times in the Champions League group stage for 14 years. Two of the goals came from set-pieces – something of a familiar issue for the side that dates back to Pep Guardiola’s time in charge.

Afterwards, Enrique spoke of the basic errors that cost his team. But the bigger point was that PSG were the best side Barca had faced up to that point. They had the ability to take the chances that fell their way. Real Madrid will do likewise.

From 8 league games so far, Barcelona haven’t leaked a single goal. Many have singled out the performances of Jeremy Mathieu as the reason for it. Signed in the summer, he was unconventional. Barcelona have had a mixed history regarding centre-halves, notably the expensive disaster that was Dmytro Chygrynskiy’s spell at the club.

Soccer - Barcelona v Club Leon - Joan Gamper Trophy - Camp Nou Stadium Source: MIquel Llop/CORDON/Press Association Images

Often, as was the case with Yaya Toure and currently with Javier Mascherano too, Barca like to keep things unorthodox with their central defenders but Mathieu is, relatively-speaking the opposite. He’s a physical presence but has a certain gracefulness too, possibly owing to him having played as a full-back (and further forward in midfield) for Sochaux and Toulouse.

But, it’s during games like these when reputations are reinforced or ripped asunder. Mathieu wouldn’t want to undo all his hard work with the entire world watching.

How will Real cope without Gareth Bale?

Carlo Ancelotti’s side didn’t do too badly without the Welshman on Wednesday when they brushed aside the meek challenge of Liverpool at Anfield. They didn’t miss him too much against Levante last weekend either and ran out 5-0 winners.

What does need to happen though is a formation change. Usually, Real set up with three up top (Bale, Ronaldo and Benzema) but Ancelotti has tweaked things in Bale’s absence and gone with a more conventional 4-4-2 with Isco handed a starting role on the left side and James Rodriguez wide right.

Expect to see something similar this evening, especially with Isco impressing so much at Anfield. It’s certainly an attack-minded strategy with other alternatives being Sami Khedira or Asier Illarramendi. But with Real at home and in such fine form, Ancelotti won’t second-guess himself.

Soccer - Liga BBVA - Real Madrid v Athletico Bilbao - Santiago Bernabeu Stadium Source: Gregorio Lopez/CORDON/Press Association Images

Naturally, all eyes will be on the sub-plot involving Ronaldo and Messi. In 7 league appearances, the Portuguese has scored an astonishing 15 times. Barca’s talisman has scored 7 in 8 games but has added a further 7 assists. Meanwhile, his strike partner Neymar has contributed another 8 goals and the pair have developed a terrific understanding.

As much as Barca can offer up solid stats, Real’s offensive unit is formidable. Yes, they do take a hit without Bale (he’s scored four and made three) but they’ve scored more than 3 goals on six occasions this season. In their last three alone, they’ve racked up thirteen.

Will Xavi get the nod to start in Barcelona’s midfield?

Back in June, it seemed certain that Xavi was on his way from Barcelona and about to ply his trade either in the USA or the Middle East. But just a few months later, he held a press conference to inform everyone he was staying put, admitting he had made a ‘rash decision’ and apologised for even contemplating an exit.

His playing time has been greatly reduced under Luis Enrique and up until recently, he had to make do with cameo appearances. But, he has started the last two league games and didn’t feature against Ajax on Tuesday – perhaps the biggest indicator yet that the veteran is set to start against Real.

Spain Soccer La Liga Source: AP/Press Association Images

According to AS, seven players are certain to face Real: Bravo, Alves, Mathieu, Mascherano, Iniesta, Messi and Neymar. Perhaps Pique’s chances of playing centre on whether Sergio Busquets is fit enough to start. If not, Mascherano will deputise (as he has been doing) in central midfield and there’s a knock-on effect elsewhere. Should Xavi get the nod, he’ll play alongside Iniesta with Mascherano or Busquets holding. It means Ivan Rakitic, who has began brightly at the Camp Nou, will miss out.

Plenty of new faces will hope to make an impact

If Rakitic isn’t involved, there are plenty of other new signings that will get to experience El Clasico for the very first time and could dominate proceedings. For Real, Toni Kroos has been in superb form and against Liverpool he ran the show, also conjuring a magnificent assist for Karim Benzema’s first goal.

His central midfield partnership with Luka Modric is something to savour and his all-round abilities (intelligence, awareness, positioning, vision, passing, set-pieces) make the £20m Real spent on him in the summer look an absolute bargain.

For James Rodriguez, it’s a little trickier having to play such a different role because of Bale’s injury. There is a discipline to being stationed on the wing though he managed it admirably against Liverpool, getting back constantly to help out Alvaro Arbeloa. In 8 games, he’s scored just twice but he’s contributed 3 assists as well. But it will be interesting to see how he copes should Enrique decide to play Alba at left-back.

For Barca, there’s Claudio Bravo and the goalkeeper has had a pretty impressive time of it in La Liga so far – going 720 minutes without conceding while there’s been the added bonus of watching Marc-Andre Ter Stegen struggle under the spotlight (he seemed on edge all through the PSG game and was at fault for Marco Verratti’s goal). He will be kept busy but could prove an influential figure.

Luis Suarez readies himself for El Clasico and a date with destiny

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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