What is going with Neymar and other key questions ahead of the pre-season Clasico

Andy West 12:43 29/07/2017
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Barcelona are in good form ahead of Sunday’s El Clasico having beaten Juventus and Manchester United in the International Champions Cup.

Real Madrid, however, will be looking to bounce back from the 4-1 loss to Manchester City but of course the main story line is away from the pitch with Neymar and Gareth Bale’s futures in doubt.

Here are four key questions ahead of the clash.

What’s going on with Neymar?

The ongoing saga of Neymar’s potential dramatic departure to Paris Saint-Germain took an ugly turn for the worse yesterday when the Brazilian winger stormed out of a training session after an angry altercation with newly-signed right-back Nelson Semedo.

Despite his unsettled state – or perhaps because of it – Neymar has been in superb form so far during pre-season, scoring two brilliant goals against Juventus and adding another to defeat Manchester United.

But the question of whether he is motivated will be under exceptionally heavy scrutiny in what could prove to be his last Clasico, and any sign of insolence or half-heartedness will be ruthlessly pounced upon by the Spanish media.

It will also be fascinating to see the chemistry between Neymar and his teammates, who must be privately running out of patience with the way the Brazilian’s future has completely dominated their preparations for the new season.

Will Valverde persist with 4-3-3?

Throughout his coaching career new Barca boss Ernesto Valverde has favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation with the back four protected by two defensively-positioned central midfielders.

But so far during pre-season he has opted for Barca’s traditional 4-3-3 formation, which has been employed almost exclusively since Pep Guardiola took command of the team nearly ten years ago.

So far there has been little discernible change to the midfield set-up which sees Sergio Busquets act as the anchor with Ivan Rakitic to his right and Andres Iniesta on the left, and it appears Valverde is prepared to change his approach to suit his new team rather than the other way around.

But that system becomes imbalanced when Lionel Messi drifts inside from his nominal right-wing position, often leaving the right-back lacking in defensive cover and leaving the team vulnerable to counter-attacks. It’s a matter Valverde must address sooner rather than later.

Barcelona’s coach Ernesto Valverde

How does Zinedine Zidane want to play?

During the first year of his managerial reign Zinedine Zidane was wedded to a 4-3-3 shape with Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo lining up on the wings and Karim Benzema roaming through the middle.

But towards the end of last season Bale’s injury forced him to change that approach and introduce a narrow midfield diamond, with Casemiro at the base and Isco at the tip while Luka Modric and Toni Kroos controlled the middle.

It worked a treat as the team produced their most convincing performances for many years, with Ronaldo particularly thriving in his new role as an outright centre forward.

Now Zidane must decide whether to stick with the system that concluded last season so well or revert to his previously preferred 4-3-3, and although he is likely to use both formations at different stages of the season this Clasico could give clues over his preference for big games.

Manager Zinedine Zidane

Is Gareth Bale being marginalised?

Very closely connected to the team’s playing shape is the future of Gareth Bale, who has been very quiet so far in pre-season and has found himself linked with a move away from the Bernabeu since the club stepped up their pursuit of Monaco starlet Kylian Mbappe.

The switch to a midfield diamond does not bode well for Bale, who has no natural place within a team which does not contain wingers.

He could move infield to play in the central attacking role occupied by Isco in the latter stages of last season, but he does not really possess the intricate ball skills required to excel in that position.

The question of where Bale plays and whether he can make a meaningful impact upon the action could be extremely revealing – another below-par performance could be an indication that the former Tottenham man’s days at Madrid are numbered.

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