Wednesday, 16 April 2014

5 talking points ahead of tonight’s El Clasico

Barcelona and Real Madrid face off in the Copa del Rey final this evening.
Gareth Bale has struggled to make an impact in the two Clasicos he's played in thus far.
Gareth Bale has struggled to make an impact in the two Clasicos he's played in thus far.
Spain Soccer La Liga
(Lionel Messi scored a hat-trick the last time the sides met)

In Barcelona’s recent all-important Champions League clash with Atleticio Madrid, Lionel Messi played much of the game on the right-hand side of the attack.

The Argentinian looked uncomfortable in the position, and failed to influence proceedings in the manner that he usually does.

Despite his usual array of goals, this season has been less than satisfactory for Messi so far, as the Copa del Rey now appears to be Barca’s only chance of silverware following their shock loss to Granada in the league at the weekend, while the 26-year-old has also had significant injury problems to contend with.

That said, he did perform extremely well the last time these two sides met, scoring a hat-trick and making an excellent all-round contribution.

He could flourish again tonight, but the extent of his success may be dependent on whether he gets to play in his favoured central role.

2. Gareth Bale has another chance to silence doubters
Soccer - La Liga - Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid - Santiago Bernabeu
(Gareth Bale has tended to perform better when Cristiano Ronaldo’s been absent)

Suggesting this season has been anything other than an unequivocal success for Gareth Bale may seem somewhat harsh.

The Welsh attacker so far has 19 goals and 15 assists in 34 appearances. Last season, when he was the Premier League’s Player of the Year, he had an inferior overall record — 24 goals and eight assists in 41 appearances.

Yet if there’s one criticism of Bale, it’s that he has failed to perform to his usual impeccable standards in some of Madrid’s more high-profile matches — and in particular, their two previous fixtures against Barcelona, where he played on the game’s periphery for the most part.

However, a strong display tonight could banish these doubts and consolidate an already-excellent first season in Spain. And with Ronaldo’s expected absence, Bale could thrive with the extra responsibility he will inevitably be handed, particularly given that he will likely be granted an opportunity to play in his favoured position on the left wing.

3. Will Real Madrid cope without their maestro?
Spain Soccer Champions League
(Cristiano Ronaldo has been ruled out of tonight’s game)

Real Madrid have suffered a big blow ahead of this game, with news that Cristiano Ronaldo won’t take any part in proceedings.

Carlo Ancelotti ruled out his star player on Tuesday, explaining that he did not want to risk exacerbating a lingering hamstring injury ahead of next week’s Champions League tie against Bayern Munich.

Ronaldo has enjoyed a phenomenal season, winning the Ballon d’Or and scoring 45 times in all competitions. He also needs just one more goal to beat the all-time Champions League record he currently shares with Messi.

Moreover, he is sometimes unfairly accused of failing to make an impact in big games — with seven goals in six Clasicos, Barca will be relieved the Portuguese international hasn’t made a quicker-than-expected return from injury.

That said, Real actually have a slightly superior record without Ronaldo in their team this season, with others — most notably Bale — ostensibly raising their game in his absence.

4. Can Madrid expose Barca’s weakness at the back?
Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Quarter Final - Second Leg - Barcelona v AC Milan - Camp Nou

Javier Mascherano and Marc Bartra have recently been deployed in the centre-back positions for Barca, and the duo have often looked unconvincing. Yet with Barcelona enjoying such dominance and territory in most matches, their defensive flaws are often masked.

Nevertheless, in big games, these issues become more apparent, and the Catalan side persistently appeared vulnerable whenever Madrid attacked the last time the sides met.

While Mascherano has been played in defence quite regularly in recent times, the suspicion remains that he is a makeshift centre-half who is a midfielder at heart. Bartra, similarly, is far from world class, and still relatively inexperienced, having made just 28 first-team appearances for Barca so far.

The 23-year-old missed the weekend’s clash with Granada through injury, with Sergio Busquets moving back into defence as a result, but according to AS, the similarly doubtful Carlos Puyol has said he will play if Bartra is deemed unfit for the encounter.

5. How will Barca handle the Neymar problem?
Spain Soccer La Liga
With Barca having paid €56million for Neymar, they will be disappointed that the Brazilian has had a difficult first season in La Liga.

He has scored nine goals in 25 appearances so far — a decent return for most 22-year-old strikers, but not quite up to Barca’s high standards.

He appears to be struggling to adapt to the physicality of Spanish football, as he is at times all too easily brushed off the ball and thus, often prevented from showcasing his array of unique skills.

Moreover, the youngster was particularly poor in the most recent Clasico, and while he did score the equaliser in the first-leg against Atletico, he was an insignificant presence in both games for the most part.

Barcelona seem reluctant to drop the Brazilian given how much money they paid for him, so the striker needs to flourish this evening to avoid further severe criticism.
MSN Sport Ireland

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