It’s that time of the year again, folks! No, we’re not talking about Christmas, the New Year or your standard national holiday. Or are we? Well, we might be talking about a national holiday after all because tomorrow the whole of the footballing world will stop for 90 minutes and watch the spectacle that is El Clasico in Spain – the biggest rivalry in this sport on the planet.
The showdown between Barcelona and Real Madrid kicks off at the Camp Nou with the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals this Thursday. All eyes will be set on Catalunya as the Red and Blues will host the Whites in a match that always takes the breath away.
Clasicos usually require no special introduction as everyone already knows how big of a deal it is for both of the teams but this time around, it may very well be the case that this being a Cup semifinal tie adds extra motivation for both the home and the away team alike.
If we take just a small step back, we’ll notice that Barcelona have emerged victorious and have lifted the trophy of the Kings for four consecutive seasons to date, and Real, for all their best efforts, have failed to do so ever since 2014. It is a long time for the dubbed “Kings” to be without a trophy that literally has their name in it.
Still, the emphasis on the Cup has never been bigger than it is right now. Crushing your eternal rival and stripping them of the chance to lift another trophy is something all competitors keep close to the heart. And in the world of football, there are almost no bigger competitors than Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Both usually prepare special ceremonies or different stadium decorations when their arch enemies come to town. The Catalans have already ordered 80 000 Barca banners to be distributed to their fans to spice up the atmosphere. As it seems right now, Los Blancos will be entering a blue and red gladiatorial arena.
One hundred and seventeen years have passed since Barcelona first travelled to Madrid for the first ever Clasico. It was a start of something special, something that would mark this sport forever more. Funnily enough, that was also a semifinal tie of the Copa Coronacion, which was organized in the honour of the crowning of Alfonso XIII, the 16-year old king to be.
Since that day there has been a total of 238 games between the pair of Spain’s best with Real Madrid still edging out the Catalans by only two wins (95 – 93). Looking solely at the Copa del Rey, Barcelona are the more successful club with 15 victories while the Whites trail behind with 12 to their name.
The hosts are still waiting for some crucial news from the medical staff prior to the game to see whether Ousmane Dembele and, probably more crucially, Lionel Messi, will be fit for the big clash. The Frenchman has been out for a couple of weeks now but seems to be recovering nicely. But as fate would have it, he seemed to have caught a fever just mere days before the Clasico, and with no real game rhythm, it’s pretty reasonable that Ernesto Valverde has elected to leave his young gem out of the squad.
As for Leo Messi, he suffered a slight knock in the draw against Valencia at the Camp Nou. The Argentine was sidelined for a couple of minutes as every single fan inside the stadium and in front of the small screens held their breath with anticipation. Later reports told us that the little genius should be okay, and should also start against Real Madrid.
One other injury concern, if we can even call it that, is the one of Jasper Cillessen, the substitute goalkeeper who is usually the one to start between the sticks in Copa del Rey. The Dutchman is confirmed to miss the clash due to injury and will leave his spot to Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
In the opposite camp, Santiago Solari can enter his first El Clasico as a coach without any concerns as far as the squad is concerned. Boys from the capital are all fully fit with the exception of Luca Zidane and Jesus Vallejo, both of whom seem to be suffering from a thigh injury but should not interfere with the coach’s plans too much.
Coincidently, it was the Madrid team who was repeatedly harassed by injury after injury with some of the key names being sidelined for longer spells, and all at the same time. Now, however, the pieces are once again falling into place, both squad and form wise.
With all of that in mind, Real should, at least in theory, be able to field their gala XI with no restrictions or doubts. Who exactly fits into that scheme is a completely different question.
La Liga is only halfway through, and the real hustle in the Champions League is just beginning, so risking too much could potentially bring much more harm than good to Ernesto Valverde, who is a rather conservative coach, anyway. The gala XI will, therefore, most probably be deployed with the only exception of Ousmane Dembele, who will, as is now already confirmed, be in the stands for moral support only.
Philippe Coutinho will, therefore, accompany Luis Suarez and, of course, Lionel Messi up front, who will definitely not miss the clash. There is a small possibility that we see the Argentine start on the bench but I wouldn’t bet on it.
The rest of the squad is pretty much what you would expect in a match of this magnitude.
Starting XI: Marc-Andre ter Stegen – Roberto, Pique, Lenglet, Alba – Busquets, Rakitić, Arthur – Messi, Suarez, Coutinho
Real Madrid (4-3-3)
Now that he has everyone back to his disposal, Solari will look to bring the pain to the Camp Nou. The fact that he has both an in-form Karim Benzema and fully fit Gareth Bale is an added plus to his plan but I don’t see them both starting the game.
Benzema is definitely up there but he will most likely form a trident with Lucas and the young prodigy Vinicius Jr., who will play his first career Clasico come Thursday evening. Another potential doubt lies in the left-back position but seeing how the results have changed with the incorporation of Reguilon, Solari may opt to bench Marcelo once more in favor of his young Spanish talisman.
The midfield should comprise of Modrić, Kroos and Casemiro, and the newcomer, Thibaut Courtois guarding the net.
Starting XI: Courtois – Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Reguilon – Modrić, Casemiro, Kroos – Vazquez, Benzema, Vinicius Jr.
Clasicos are always way too difficult to guess correctly. Just when you think that both of the teams are equally matched, we get a 5:1 or a 6:2 result thrown into our faces, and when you think that you have a clear favourite, it comes back and bites you on your behind.
It would indeed take a smarter man than me to get this one on point but given all the circumstances, some past encounters and the current situation with a bit of bias in the mix, I think I’m going to go with Barcelona 3, Real Madrid 1.
If Barcelona fans feel like this will be an easy tie just because of Madrid’s up and down season this year, they definitely have another thing coming their way. If I have learned one thing when it comes to Clasicos or even by watching and hoping for a Real defeat, it’s that you can never, ever count them out.
Even when they seem down for the count, they find a way back up. There is a reason for their success in Europe, after all. Now add some much-needed rise in form in the recent weeks and their usual pedigree to this and you have a formidable opponent that is ready to strike back.
With all of that being said, I’m still confident that the result will favour the Catalans after the final whistle but we’ll just have to wait and see.
Whatever does happen, rejoice for El Clasico is here once again! And you want to hear the best thing yet? It’s just the first of three Clasicos that we’re going to see in the next 24 days…
Life is beautiful, isn’t it?