The first El Clasico of the 2011-12 season sees Barcelona’s Spanish dominance over the last three seasons set to be thoroughly challenged by Real Madrid. The quality, passion and electric atmosphere of a contest between Spain’s top two teams will be present as always when the duo meet, but this fixture has the potential to swing the balance of power in the country and the continent. Barcelona have been untouchable, mesmerizing and victorious at home and abroad over the last three years, but are showing signs of inconsistency and have not been at their menacing best this term, whilst Madrid are top of the standings and ready to wrestle the crown back from their bitter rivals. A mouth-watering match in the offing, football doesn’t get much better anywhere in the world than this.
The hosts are looking as dangerous and on-form as a Madrid team have over the last ten years, and sit top of La Liga with 12 wins from 14 games; Los Blancos are three points ahead of Barca and have played a game less. A 3-0 win over Ajax at the Amsterdam Arena on Wednesday night made it a club record 15 victories in a row for the Santiago Bernabeu giants, and Jose Mourinho’s men go into the game more prepared, motivated and ready than in any Clasico fixture in the recent memory. The Portuguese coach’s winning mentality and inability to accept second best has rubbed off on his team, as ‘The Special One’ looks to replicate his dominant track record with Porto, Chelsea and Inter in the Spanish capital.
Mourinho’s countryman Cristiano Ronaldo will continue his personal battle with Lionel Messi on Saturday, as the debate to whom the best footballer on the planet is rages on. Both players are in the offing for the 2011 Ballon d’Or, and the ex-Manchester United attacker will look to stake his claim by leading the hosts to victory. Midfield lynchpin Xabi Alonso will return from suspension in a massive boost for the home team, whilst Mourinho has a tough decision to make in deciding whether to go for the combative Lassana Diarra alongside the Spain international, or the more creative and attacking minded Mesut Ozil. If Madrid win they will increase their lead at the top of the Primera Division to six points with a game in hand, and receive a massive boost going into the new year.
With three consecutive La Liga titles and two Champions League triumphs in three years, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team will go down in history as one of the greats. However, Guardiola’s genius is set to best tested, as the game on Saturday is arguably the biggest challenge the former midfielder has faced in his coaching career to date. With a world-class opponent and a hostile reception guaranteed, Barcelona will need to be at their best to leave the Spanish capital with three points. With Madrid’s current ruthless streak, the Blaugrana will know that they can ill-afford to let their age-old rivals get too far ahead in the race for the title, as even though it is early in the season they may not be caught.
Despite drawing more games than they would like this season, Barcelona have the same personnel and winning mentality that has made them deserved champions over recent campaigns. Madrid will need to breach the tightest rearguard in the Spanish top flight; Barca have only conceded seven goals in 15 La Liga games this season, and will be boosted by the inclusion of pivotal centre back Gerard Pique. The usual midfield suspects such as Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and the third Ballon d’Or contender Xavi, will look to dominate possession and starve their amped-up opponents of the ball, whilst feeding their sprightly forward line. Guardiola has a decision to make in terms of whether to play 2010-11 mainstay David Villa or exciting summer signing Alexis Sanchez, whilst all eyes, as usual will be on Lionel Messi.
Madrid go into the game as slight favourites, but small margins will settle what should be a scintillating game of football. Barcelona will be asked to prove their mantle of champions in the most daunting environment, whilst Real Madrid have to state their case that they are ready to eclipse a team of a generation in the form of their most bitter rivals.