The last Clasico of the current La Liga season surely is one of the most highly anticipated in recent times. Both sides lost on the road in their respective Champions League ties in midweek, and a Clasico win would surely set the victors on the path towards qualification for the Champions League final in Munich almost a month from now. But perhaps more importantly, four points ahead in the league, Real Madrid will practically wrap up the title with a win over their rivals, with four games to spare. Success for Barcelona however would see the Blaugrana just one mark off the 31-time La Liga winners.
As always, it will be the little details that will separate the boys from the men. Inside Futbol look at some of the key jousts on the night:
Lionel Messi vs Iker Casillas
He keeps breaking record after record, year after year, yet the public remain divided: Is Messi the best footballer ever? His harshest critics will point out that he has yet to eclipse Diego Maradona’s achievements with the Argentina national side. Whatever may come out of this debate, what cannot be denied is that Messi is the most gifted player of his generation, and the most exciting one to watch in recent memory. Messi has 63 goals so far in all competitions, 41 of which came in the league alone. Up against Iker Casillas, the Ballon d’Or holder will need to once again make the Real Madrid goalkeeper fish the ball out of the net, as Barcelona continue their quest to catch their rivals.
Casillas will be a man under the microscope in this Clasico. Largely untouchable after tasting success with the Spanish national side in 2008 and 2010, the custodian is experiencing a difficult spell, with news of trouble with Mourinho surfacing on regular occasions. Not a man known to be comfortable playing with his feet, Barcelona will pressure Real Madrid and force them to pass to their goalkeeper. On his day, Casillas is close to unbeatable. Real Madrid will be hoping that day is 21st April.
Sergio Busquets vs Xabi Alonso
Not a direct confrontation, but one that will hold much importance on the night. Sergio Busquets will be entrusted with the task of keeping the Blaugrana backline well protected, especially should his coach opt for a three-man defence as the pressure is piled on Real Madrid. Busquets is known to often be unsteady if put under the microscope though and could be exploited as a weak link in the Barcelona set-up, but should his side play their cards right, then it is probable that the World Cup winner will be at ease on the night.
While Casillas is Real Madrid’s captain, and Cristiano Ronaldo the talisman, Xabi Alonso is definitely the side’s pacemaker. His passing dictates the tempo, and his seeing much of the ball will be instrumental for Los Blancos to play their game at the Camp Nou. Facing Xavi and Andres Iniesta in midfield, Alonso will up his defensive work as Sami Khedira will be in much need of an extra hand in breaking up the opposition’s play.
Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano vs Karim Benzema
Turning 34 just last week, Carles Puyol has had a memorable career in a Barcelona shirt, winning La Liga five times and the Champions League on three occasions. The defender is a cult hero at the Camp Nou, a dying breed of one-club men. Against Chelsea in midweek action, he was one of the Blaugrana’s better performers, defending with emotion and intensity in his usual fashion. Meeting Real Madrid, Puyol may be partnered by Javier Mascherano once more, as the latter’s impressive feats coupled with the problems between Guardiola and Gerard Pique puts him in contention to start this one. With the duo developing a good understanding, stopping Karim Benzema is a feasible task. However, the Frenchman can explode at any moment, and should not be taken lightly.
Benzema continues his competition with Gonzalo Higuain for a starting berth as the team’s striker and is expected to get the nod ahead of the Argentinean on the night. The former Lyon man has 18 league goals in 29 games so far this season – his best numbers in a Real Madrid shirt – while his seven goals in Europe has been one of the reasons behind Los Blancos’ continental run. Facing Puyol and Mascherano, Benzema will need to find space for himself, or liberate his two supporting wingers in order to hit the opposition hard. It is games like these where the Frenchman needs to show his true value.
Right wing occupant vs Marcelo
Messi or Pedro Rodriguez may end up occupying the right wing on the night, leaving their opposing number with a tough task. Fabio Coentrao’s woeful display against Bayern Munich means that Marcelo will be given the nod ahead of the Portuguese as Real Madrid’s left back. Marcelo is arguably the best left back in the world, but his game is far from complete. For instance, his defensive awareness remains, at times, poor – reminiscent of another great Brazilian left back, Roberto Carlos. Another key note is that the former Fluminense starlet is prone to losing his cool at difficult times: He was needlessly sent off for a tackle on Cesc Fabregas in the dying minutes of the Spanish Super Cup back in August; while he repeated this against Bayern Munich’s Thomas Muller a few days ago, escaping with just a yellow from referee Howard Webb.
His presence in attack gives Real Madrid more options, but should Messi be entrusted with the right side, then Marcelo’s primary set of instructions will be to follow the diminutive forward around like his shadow. Failure to do so could be catastrophic for the league leaders.