Wednesday, 18 January 2012

El Clasico preview: Can Barcelona get their season back on track at the Bernabeu tonight?

So here we are again... Tonight marks the fourth El Clasico of the season as Barcelona travel to Madrid for their Copa Del Rey quarter final clash. In the league, Real Madrid remains top, with Barcelona trailing them by 5 points. But for a little while, that can be put in the shade.

Madrid, of course, broke Barcelona's dominance by winning the Copa Del Rey last season. The club from the capital have been keen to point out it was the most important iteration of the competition in quite some time. You would however, have been forgiven for disagreeing with that notion when the video of Sergio Ramos dropping the trophy from an open top bus emerged.
And yet the fact that a Blaugrana ribbon was removed from a Spanish trophy brought a huge relief to the supporters - not just because it was pure silverware, but also as it was a chance to gauge of how far Real Madrid had come under José Mourinho and, most importantly, how close they were to the glittering Catalans.
And, until the two teams' early December meeting at least, it seemed that they were very close indeed. Then, after taking an early lead, Real Madrid swaggered for 20 minutes before retreating back into their shells as Barcelona came out of theirs to dominate profoundly.
That victory for Barcelona at the Bernabeu was a bitter taste to swallow. There was no injuries, no debatable refereeing decisions, no on or off field shenanigans. Pep Guardiola’s men were simply irresistible.
Barca have found that level of performance hard to replicate since, though. They have struggled domestically with some lacklustre performances and glaring passages of complacency and serious questions have been directed at several senior players.
If Barcelona have been diet of late, then Real Madrid have been a blisteringly refreshing energy drink packed with sugars and colourants. Their performances have been emphatic, the team rarely conceding an inch as Mourinho’s steely determination has transferred into every one of his players.
Even those who have been on the fringes, such as Jose Callejon, whose signing was met with indifference, have come in and performed at the same level as the first choice team. Real Madrid’s narrow win over Real Mallorca last weekend was only possible thanks to Callejon’s decisiveness with the game drawing to a close.
We’ve been here before, though: Real Madrid coming into an El Clasico as favourites, and Barcelona underestimated.  Those who go by such measures should remember the week leading up to that last meeting in December when talk of the Catalans' demise was, to put it lightly, greatly exaggerated.
It's worth remembering that Barcelona have been hit terribly by injuries this season, and David Villa will be the main absentee here but Pedro - a key, but sometimes forgotten component of the side's success in recent seasons - is also out. Pep Guardiola's preference for rotating his goalkeepers in this competition means Jose Manuel Pinto should get the nod over the outstanding Victor Valdes as well. But Alexis Sanchez looks set to start up front.
Mourinho waved away all questions about his selection in the pre-match press conference, insisting that he would not elaborate on rumours Sergio Ramos might revert to right back and Pepe will be deployed in front of the back four. He’s certainly without Sami Khedira, but Angel Di Maria has come back into the squad.
Real Madrid are the reigning Copa Del Rey champions and will defend the title as any worthy holders would. The fact that it’s against their greatest rivals adds that extra desire. For Barcelona, they have a few more issues to set straight. And I don’t mean just the trophy...
By David Cartlidge in Mirror Football Blog

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