Five key areas to Real Madrid vs Barca

David Cartlidge 11:35 20/11/2015
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  • Many factors lie behind each Clasico, but which aspects will prove the most vital come game day? Here are the five that stand out most heading into the game at the Bernabeu this Saturday.

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    Neymar’s form continuing


    An opportunity arose when Lionel Messi went down injured on the turf against Las Palmas in September, and Neymar seized upon it with unrelenting vigour. The Brazilian has in the time since Messi’s injury, become the name on the lips of everyone associated with football. 

    When he arrived at Barcelona there was an unprecedented air of humility about Neymar, as he showed a great appreciation of learning and adapting to his new surroundings. It has come full circle over the past two months or so, as we now see the version of Neymar that Barca so strongly courted. He’s immersed himself in every aspect of Barca’s forward play and also showing the nous to compete on the back foot, but most of all has shouldered the majority of the burden left in the wake of Messi’s injury.

    With or without his good friend on the field at the Bernabeu, how Neymar performs could well be a pivotal moment in his young career. Is this the stage in which he truly explodes, like Messi before him at age 19?

    Lionel Messi’s fitness

    Lionel Messi.

    That brings us to the man himself. It’s admirable that Barca arrive into this game on top of the pile, and with few signs of missing their main man. Credit of course, to Neymar and Luis Suarez particularly, who have notched 16 goals since Messi was injured. Now however, the little man is likely to return, either be it from the start or from the bench. As Suarez put it earlier this week, Messi can decide a game in the last half hour.

    If Barca are pinned down by a resilient Real Madrid, perhaps more defensively focused, Messi could well be the man to open the game up – despite the form of Neymar and Suarez. It would be typical of Messi to return with a bang too, for even if he’s at 70% fitness a moment of genius is only a breath away.

    Rafa’s defensive tactics

    Rafa Benitez.

    The most intriguing story in the Spanish press this week, even more so than Messi’s fitness situation, is an apparent plea from a group of Real Madrid players. Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo were said to be the names putting it to Benitez that he alters his defensive tactics, and instead go for the throat of Barcelona. It’s a fascinating thought that some of his most senior players may be asking for such a thing, and even more so that they could have a point.

    Real Madrid’s system has seen various players struggle and few prosper, with games unnecessarily becoming struggles – even from winning positions. The case is especially strong in the bigger games, and few come as big as this weekend. There was the lead given up against Atletico Madrid, then a win over PSG that felt like a draw or loss given the forlorn nature of the display. Before the International break however, a loss to Sevilla highlighted all the issues that many had warned of in the weeks before. Benitez will be under greater tactical scrutiny than ever on Saturday, so he needs to best deliver some answers rather than what he’s done so far – pose more questions.

    Cristiano’s form

    Cristiano Ronaldo.

    One of the world’s best players simply doesn’t decline overnight, and while it may be argued Cristiano Ronaldo’s form has been turgid for sometime, he is surely not done at the top just yet. This weekend presents the greatest opportunity for Cristiano to ram criticism down the throats of the masses that doubt him. 

    On Saturday he needs to show the ferocious competitor still exists, and that he won’t be content with making 10 touches of the ball across 90 minutes. Cristiano needs to offer a reminder, even after everything he’s achieved, that he still belongs at the top.

    The midfield tug-of-war

    Toni Kroos.

    While the attacking departments of both sides will garner much of the headlines, the midfield battle will be the most vital. Luka Modric and Toni Kroos must immerse themselves into the game positively, and take control from the start. Both have looked more like individuals this season as opposed to teammates, as their roles still continue to develop in the Benitez regime. In this game they must be on the same wavelength, and allow Real Madrid to control and be purposeful with their possession of the ball.

    Casemiro is becoming a favourite of Benitez meanwhile, and will likely offer the safety net behind Modric and Kroos. His positioning in front of the defence might well be vital given Barca’s play takes on more prominence through the middle.

    Barca will rely heavily as usual, on how Sergio Busquets gathers the ball out of defence. Ahead of him the tireless presence of Ivan Rakitic, one of the hardest working players in La Liga, could be essential against Benitez’s side that owes much to the physical side of the game. If he fails to make it, in-form Sergi Roberto's thrust in midfield could be much needed.