MADRID-based journalist Brendan Boyle (@BrendyBoyle) sets the scene ahead of Wednesday night's Clasico as Barcelona host Real Madrid at the Camp Nou.
Barcelona v Real Madrid | Wednesday 18th December 2019, 19:00 | Premier Sports
The build-up to the first Clásico of the season has largely focused on possible disturbances off the pitch as Catalan protest group Tsunami Democràtic has called for a mass demonstration outside Camp Nou in the hours leading up to kick-off. This is, of course, a game which was postponed due to security concerns during the well-documented protests in Catalonia in October and is set to be one of the more politically charged Clásicos in recent memory.
The prospect of the biggest game in world football loomed over both Barcelona ad Real Madrid this past weekend as both dropped points on the road at two of the more difficult venues in La Liga, Anoeta and Mestalla.
“We drew but I think we deserved a little bit more,” said Zinedine Zidane after a Thibaut Courtois-sized wrecking ball caused havoc in the Valencia penalty, allowing Karim Benzema to lash home the equaliser with the last kick of the game. Madrid did pull the game out of the fire but, contrary to what Zidane’s lament, they did not deserve more.
It was hard not to feel a bit sorry for Valencia at full-time; it would have been a marvellous way to cap an incredible month, they have given it absolutely everything in some epic battles in the league and Champions League while running on empty.
Casemiro was given a well-deserved rest which, in turn, allowed him to avoid the dreaded fifth yellow card, while Ferland Mendy will also return to the fray after a silly suspension saw him miss the trip to Mestalla. Both will return to the starting line-up and will serve to bolster Zidane’s defence. The worry, however, is in attack where Madrid have tailed off a little since the injury to Eden Hazard.
The Belgian was approaching his best and Madrid’s attack was purring as a result. His ability to turn defenders and link up with Karim Benzema was yielding increasing dividends as the weeks went by and that lack of real quality has been evident in recent games against Alavés, Espanyol and Valencia, despite decent results.
Rodrygo looks a real talent, as does Vinicius Jr but in games of this magnitude you need proven talent, not potential. Madrid were dominant and aggressive during the first 20 minutes on Sunday night but they lacked bit of finesse in the final third and their attack was virtually non-existent for the vast majority of the game.
Zidane will set out to make his team difficult to beat and we could see a midfield of Casemiro, Kroos, Valverde and Modric, while Gareth Bale might just get the nod ahead of the young Brazilians in what may be a 4-1-4-1 system.
Zidane has never tasted defeat at Camp Nou and could become the first Real Madrid manager in history to achieve five consecutive games without defeat at the home of their most bitter rivals. Having said that, Barca at home really are a formidable force: their last 50 home games has seen a form line of W43-D6-L1, with the only defeat coming against Real Betis last November.
Madrid have won only two of the last 10 meetings in La Liga (Barca six), while they registered a total of four goals in the four meetings last season between league and cup.
Gerard Piqué was named in Marca’s Team of the Week for his performance in Anoeta and his return to form is a huge boost to Valverde after a poor first half to the season. Of course, Barca do not have the midfield dominance like in years gone by – but they do have Lionel Messi. The Argentinian was ominous at Real Sociedad but a repeat performance in the biggest game of the season is unlikely.
Zidane would be delighted with a draw on Wednesday night, nor would Ernesto Valverde be too upset if the points were shared; he is well aware of how potent his side has been at the Bernabéu in recent years and if they do need a positive result for the head to head come the return fixture in March, they will be confident of doing so.
Therefore, the draw is a big player here and because of Madrid’s likely pragmatic line-up, I’m not expecting a goal-fest.
Emotions are going to be running hight in Catalonia on Wednesday night and if there is a winner it will most likely be the result of a moment of magic from Messi or Suárez but this Madrid team is a different beast to the one which was flattened 5-1 in this fixture last season.
The last 0-0 draw in this fixture came in April 2011 in the Copa del Rey; 32 games have passed since but, all things considered, the goal streak coming to an end would not be a huge shock this time around.
It may (or may not) lack the goals of recent battles, but it is unlikely that the first Clásico is going to let us down in terms of intensity and intrigue.
Barcelona v Real Madrid – Barcelona double chance and Under 3.5 Goals (11/10 Bet365)