Barcelona v Real Madrid: tactical preview

May 3, 2011

Potential starting line-ups

Amongst the squabbling, appealing and conspiracy theories, there’s a football match to play tonight at the Camp Nou.

Now into the fourth part of a four-part Clasico series, there’s relatively little left to say about the potential tactics of both managers. We’ve had one win for Pep Guardiola, one win for Jose Mourinho (in extra time) and one draw. We’ve had different formations, different players and wildly different patterns to matches, and it’s difficult to predict what more can reasonably be expected tonight.

There are two caveats to all this, two reasons why things will be slightly different in this match. The first reason is injury and suspension news, the second is the fact that Barcelona start with a two-goal advantage, meaning both sides’ mentality will change accordingly. These are the two factors to consider.

Team news

For the fourth Clasico in four this season, Real Madrid had a player dismissed in the first leg, Pepe. Both sides would agree that there is no coincidence here, regardless of whether they are blaming (a) a wide-ranging UEFA conspiracy that favours Barcelona, or (b) a natural consequence of Barcelona dominating possession and a physical approach from Real Madrid. Either way, it’s something Mourinho has dealt with well before.

The problem is that Real are without two key defensive players (if not necessarily two key defenders). Sergio Ramos will miss out because of his yellow card, in addition to Pepe’s red card ban. Ricardo Carvalho (suspended for the first leg) will come in alongside Raul Albiol (suspended for the cup final) in a return to the centre-back partnership that started the recent 1-1 draw in the league.

Pepe will probably have no direct replacement. Mourinho used three deep-lying midfielders in the first leg, but with Pepe and Sami Khedira unavailable, he’ll probably move back to the 4-2-3-1 system he’s favoured for most of the season. Lassana Diarra will sit deep with Xabi Alonso, with Mesut Ozil higher up the pitch in the centre, and Angel di Maria on the left. This also means that Cristiano Ronaldo will move to the right, and a striker will come in up top. Emmanuel Adebayor is likely to be favoured over Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuian.

Guardiola has fewer problems. In fact, with the pleasing news that Eric Abidal is back in the squad again after successful treatment for a tumour on his liver, and Maxwell rumoured to be nearing fitness, things are looking up – despite Guardiola’s complaints about his injury problems.

Those two are unlikely to be used here, however, with Carles Puyol set to play at left-back again. If Ronaldo is used on the right, this will work reasonably well in theory for Barcelona – Guardiola would rather have Puyol up against the Portuguese forward than Maxwell or Adriano. Barca’s full-backs stayed very deep in the first leg to prevent diagonal balls over the top catching them out, so Puyol will again not be out of place at full-back. There’s a chance Ronaldo could be switched to the left to give him a go at Dani Alves, but that may be a problem defensively.

The return of Andres Iniesta is a more important factor. In theory he should replace Seydou Keita without any problems, but Keita’s physicality was actually very useful in the first leg. With no Pepe, Barcelona don’t have to worry so much about being overpowered in the midfield zone, but it’s not unthinkable that Guardiola could use Keita in the midfield and push Iniesta into the front three, and dropping either Pedro or David Villa.

The situation

The use of a ball-playing midfielder in the front three makes more sense when you consider Barcelona’s two-goal lead. Perhaps that is the most interesting aspect of this game – Guardiola has never come back to the Camp Nou in the Champions League having won the first leg away from home. In Guardiola’s eight ties in this competition, three (Bayern, Chelsea, Shakhtar) have seen the first leg played at home, three have seen a first leg score draw away from home (Lyon, Stuttgart, Arsenal (the first time)) and two have seen a first leg defeat away from home (Inter, Arsenal (the second time)).

So what do you get when probably the best side in history at keeping the ball doesn’t actually need to win the game? Well, we don’t know. But it could be a remarkably dominant display of possession. Granted, the games against Lyon, Stuttgart and Arsenal were similar in that a 0-0 would have done Barcelona in the second leg, but there was still some desire for a goal. A two-goal cushion is something entirely different, and Guardiola would be content if his centre-backs just played one-twos for the whole game.

Xavi has denied the suggestion that Barcelona will try and ‘kill’ the game, with the inevitable soundbite – “We can’t just control our 0-2 lead. This team can only attack. Our fans also wouldn’t allow us to play different” – but it’s hard to believe Barcelona will leave any spaces at the back, or risk conceding possession too cheaply.

The situation of the tie has bigger consequences for Real Madrid, however. They spent the first leg sitting back in their own half with only Ronaldo closing down – see the first clip in the video below.

In short, this will have to change – Real will have to play higher up the pitch, they’ll have to try and force Barcelona into mistakes, or conceding possession. They did this very well in the Copa del Rey final, but they used Pepe as their main destructive force in midfield, they also had Khedira in the side, they also had the pace of Ramos at the back, they also weren’t playing at the Camp Nou. It will be very difficult for Mourinho to press Barcelona for 90 minutes.

The biggest issue is how to deal with Xavi in Pepe’s absence. Pepe near-enough man-marked the Spanish midfielder in the last two meetings, and Real were exposed after his red card. Ozil could be given that job, but in the 5-0 earlier in the season, Xavi simply moved higher up the pitch and dictated play from there.

Therefore, it is likely that he’ll start reasonably cautiously. Each of the three recent Clasicos have finished 0-0 at half time, and Mourinho may want his side to sit back and make sure they don’t lose the tie within the first half, before pushing forward late on, pressing intensely, and hoping Barcelona get tired and/or complacent.

A year ago Mourinho’s semi-final victory was sealed at the Nou Camp in remarkable circumstances, but progression from this tie would be even more amazing.

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