It is surprising just how much a picture can change within a year. At the turn of 2013, Real Madrid defeated Barcelona in two of three contested fixtures, which allowed Los Blancos to gain the upper psychological hand over Barcelona. Now, Real Madrid and coach Carlo Ancelotti face their most challenging task to date, with the Italian hoping to imitate predecessor Jose Mourinho and keep his side’s good luck against the Catalans going.
Both sides suffered hugely important changes over the summer. Barcelona took a heavy setback as they announced that Tito Vilanova was stepping down due to recurring health issues, with Gerardo “Tata” Martino replacing Pep Guardiola’s former assistant; the Argentine being recommended for the job by countryman Lionel Messi.
The Blaugrana have picked up right where they left off last season, and as things stand, lead the Spanish league table with 25 points after nine league outings – an extraordinary record. However, they seem to have abandoned their tiki-taka style at times in favour of a more direct way of play, putting the emphasis on long passes and giving wingers more responsibility, while adopting squad rotation in order to keep players fresh, most notably Messi.
Real Madrid on the other hand impressed much in pre-season, injecting themselves with Spanish blood along the way, as they made room for Asier Illarramendi, Isco and Daniel Carvajal. They started their season in good form and are just three points adrift of Barcelona. But their lack of effort during some games remained well too evident, as they have struggled to get past teams on the road, winning against Granada, Elche and Levante by a single goal margin and drawing with Villarreal, while at home they infamously fell to Atletico Madrid.
Since that date, Real Madrid have won all of their games, including their last two against Malaga and Juventus as they prepare for this weekend’s El Clasico; Los Blancos finally appear to have grasped the way Ancelotti wants them to play, while at the same time keeping some of their trademark counter-attacking verve.
To the Italian’s credit, he took over a squad where selection problems were bound to occur, as the debate between goalkeepers Diego Lopez and Iker Casillas was a hangover from Mourinho’s spell, while the arrival of Gareth Bale meant that the hard-working Angel di Maria would have to be sacrificed eventually. The sudden departure of Mesut Ozil left a bad taste in the fans’ mouths, too.
Now on the verge of El Clasico, Real Madrid appear to have just gone through the needed preparations to travel to Catalonia and aim to replicate the victory they gained in thrilling fashion the last time they played at the Camp Nou. The fact that Barcelona have drawn their last two games, against Osasuna and AC Milan, will not mean however that Los Cules will not be ready, as they too have been less than smooth on the road. But Real Madrid do seem prepared to tackle this game in good spirits. With Cristiano Ronaldo happy over his contract extension and repaying it with valuable goals, the team know that they can count on their talisman to save them – just as he has so many countless times before.
Of course, both sides do go into the game with a series of problems. Barcelona can be susceptible to breach any minute, and despite the much-awaited return of Carles Puyol, are on occasion caught napping, while Messi is still not 100 per cent fit, even if he scored against AC Milan in midweek Champions League action.
Real Madrid on the other hand demonstrated their frailties from set-pieces and crosses as they conceded too easily against Juventus on their way to a 2-1 win, and that may well be something Martino looks to exploit to bulge Lopez’s net. Karim Benzema meanwhile continues his non-show up front and will find it difficult to suddenly up his pace. In a recent poll conducted by pro-Real Madrid daily Marca, around 92% of fans say they have lost faith in the Frenchman, preferring youngster Alvaro Morata to spearhead the attack instead.
With Vilanova and Mourinho gone, the stage is set for the faithful of each El Clasico combatant to witness first-hand how Martino and Ancelotti do battle. A win for the home side would allow them to open a six-point gap over Real Madrid, while Los Blancos will draw level with Barcelona on points should they return home victorious. Add to the match the new “Bale-Neymar” factor this time around and fans will be seeing even more world-class footballers next to Messi and Ronaldo. As always, El Clasico never fails to whet the appetite.