El Clasico: Midfield matters on Ernesto Valverde’s mind and other talking points

Andy West 00:49 18/12/2019
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Barcelona and Real Madrid go head to head in a delayed Clasico at the Camp Nou on Wednesday evening, and the outcome could prove crucial in the tight title race which currently has the teams tied on points at the top of the table.

As ever when these two titans meet there are plenty of talking points to consider ahead of the game – and the first of those is whether the action will be interrupted by off-the-pitch matters.

Independence protests to strike?

The teams were initially scheduled to meet towards the end of October, but the game was postponed amid security concerns due to passionate protests for Catalan independence that had brought the city of Barcelona and its surrounding area to a near-standstill.

Although the situation is somewhat calmer now, tensions have not gone away and Catalan pro-independence supporters have already pledged to use Wednesday’s game against the men from the Spanish capital as an opportunity to highlight their cause.

Security around the stadium has been significantly strengthened, and the two sets of players will have an unusual preparation for the game by staying at the same nearby hotel and then travelling together to the Camp Nou two hours before the game.

Managers Ernesto Valverde and Zinedine Zidane have insisted their approach will not be affected by the political intrigues, but the atmosphere inside the stadium will surely be even feistier than usual and the prospect of independence supporters pulling off a stunt to delay the action – or even force another postponement – cannot be discounted. To paraphrase Barca’s club motto, El Clasico is always ‘more than a game’, and on this occasion that is more true than ever.

Midfield matters on Valverde’s mind

Home team boss Ernesto Valverde has some serious selection decisions in front of him, with doubts over several positions.

To start with the defence, Marc-Andre ter Stegen will certainly be protected by Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet and fit-again Jordi Alba. But the right-back spot is unclear, with Sergi Roberto and Nelson Semedo competing for the start.

That decision will partly depend upon whether Valverde would like to use Roberto in midfield, where Frenkie De Jong seems set for his Clasico debut but the other two positions are being contested by Roberto, Carles Alena, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal (Arthur Melo is still absent with an unexplained injury). The starters in Saturday’s draw at Real Sociedad were Busquets and Rakitic, but they both struggled against the Basque team’s fluid movement and Valverde must be considering a more athletic combination.

The Barca boss could even choose to bolster his midfield by adding another player at the expense of Antoine Griezmann, who has not yet properly gelled with Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi. This season has seen Valverde show an increased willingness to veer away from the team’s long-established 4-3-3 formation, and he may well have a trick up his sleeve for this contest.

Bale back in favour?

Zinedine Zidane has similar decisions to wrestle with, especially in his forward line where the absence of injured Eden Hazard has given the coach the task of selecting between Gareth Bale, Rodrygo Goes and Vinicius Junior.

Either one or two of those players will be selected to appear alongside the in-form Karim Benzema up front, depending on whether Zidane opts for a three or four-man midfield. Casemiro will definitely return to the starting eleven after being rested for Sunday’s draw at Valencia, with pass master Toni Kroos and all-action Fede Valverde likely to join the Brazilian enforcer.

That will probably leave Luka Modric on the bench to unleash as an impact sub when the game starts to open up after an hour, with the most likely fourth midfielder – if that’s the approach Zidane chooses to take – being Isco, who has recently returned to favour after a long spell in the wilderness.

Even so, someone will have to partner Benzema up front and there’s no obvious front-runner. Rodrygo’s form has dipped in recent weeks and Vinicius does not appear to have earned the full trust of his manager. Which, logically, leaves Bale…will the Welshman complete his journey from unwanted outcast to starting El Clasico in the space of a month?

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