With two El Clasicos to be played in a span of four days, the tension in Spain can be cut with a knife. As for the neutrals, a footballing extravaganza is in store as Real Madrid host Barcelona in quick succession, as part of the Copa del Rey semi-finals that will decide the finalist and a league fixture that could have a say in the title race.
The two rivals have met twice this season, both times at the Camp Nou. Barcelona were 5-1 winners in October, whereas the first leg of the Copa del Rey semis earlier this month saw a 1-1 draw.
The Catalans have made good memories at the Bernabeu of late, including scorelines that read 4-0, 3-2 and 3-0 all in their favour. But will they be able to add to that record and progress to the finals?
We take a look at the tactics Ernesto Valverde could employ in the second leg of the cup semis.
OVERLOAD THE RIGHT FLANK
The team sheets ordinarily suggest that Lionel Messi starts on the right, but the Argentine usually drifts off to the centre. Whenever Ousmane Dembele and Messi start together, the Frenchman starts on the left, but it’s very clear that he can do better on the right.
There’s enough threat on the left without him thanks to Jordi Alba’s contributions in attack. Given Marcelo’s poor form and Sergio Reguilon’s lack of experience in a big game, Barcelona can consider overloading Real’s left side with pace.
Dembele and Nelson Semedo have developed a good chemistry and can do a lot of damage from the right flank. This also frees up Messi in a more central position – the pair could wreak havoc should their link-ups bear fruit.
Luis Suarez will still be key in the centre and the formation will be more of a 4-4-2 or a distorted 4-3-3, revolving around the central idea of having Dembele on the right rather than left side of the pitch.
THE MIDFIELD CHAIN OF COMMAND
It’s clear that a midfield three of Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal is too passive and there is too much pressure on Messi to drop in to create.
A deeper Rakitic has worked when tested last season and the elements of that could work well, should Madrid attempt to press the midfield.
Rakitic has often helped in a sweep-up operation to let Busquets control the midfield battle without too much defensive obligation.
In Carles Alena, Barcelona have a brilliant ball-carrier who also has a good rapport with Messi. Should all three players play their role to perfection, the visitors will be able to beat Madrid’s press and win the midfield battle.
A creative hierarchy will emerge as the build-up begins with Busquets, moves onto Alena and then to Messi.
Earlier, Solari had complained about harsh scheduling which sees the European champions host Barcelona twice and then Ajax in a space of seven days, starting from Wednesday at the Bernabeu.
The Madrid boss hinted that Barcelona have been favoured by the scheduling, given they played their league game against Sevilla on Saturday, while Madrid have to play Levante away on Sunday.
“The calendar is funny,” Solari said to Marca.
“We don’t choose to play in these different circumstances, but we’re going to take it as a big challenge.”
Pique responded to this by commenting on how Madrid had a similar advantage in the return fixture earlier this season, but failed to capitalise on it.
“If I remember correctly, they had one extra day of rest in the first half of the season and we won 5-1,” he said.
“They’ll be keen to play us and we’ll do all we can to reach the final.”
Sevilla boss Pablo Machin reflected on his team’s defeat to Barcelona by showering praise on Lionel Messi.
The Argentine scored his 50th career hat-trick to guide Barcelona to a 4-2 victory over Sevilla as they twice came from behind on Saturday night.
Machin feels that Messi has developed a special liking towards Sevilla, given the forward has now struck 36 times in 35 games against them.
“We faced one of the best teams in the world and the best player in the world, who has got our number and seems to have taken a special liking to us,” Machin commented after the game when facing the press, according to Marca.
It was a frustrating match for Machin, who saw his team dominate proceedings before succumbing later in the game.
“In the end, the result is all that matters when, once again, we had a chance to win,” he claimed.
“It’s something to correct, I tell them that we have the chance to score a goal until the very last minute.”
However, the coach was optimistic about his team’s display on the night.
“Despite the bitter feeling of not having been able to win, we have done a lot of things well in the game,” he insisted.
“The players are 99 percent empty, from there I can’t say much more to them.”