MADRID, (Reuters) – The most dangerous team without the ball, counter-attack kings Real Madrid, host lords of possession Barcelona tomorrow in a titanic clash of footballing philosophies.
The world’s two richest clubs by income will lock horns for an eighth time since Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho took the helm at the Bernabeu a year and a half ago and they could be forgiven for being sick of the sight of each other.
European champions Barca, who continue to be considered the benchmark in world soccer, are chasing a club record-equalling fourth consecutive La Liga title and under coach Pep Guardiola have held an almost hypnotic hold over their arch rivals.
Guardiola has won seven out of 11 ‘Clasicos’ since 2008 and after former Barca assistant coach Mourinho arrived at Real in 2010, when the intensity of the rivalry soared, he has notched three wins, three draws and only one defeat.
Mourinho’s one success came in last April’s King’s Cup final, but by the Spanish Super Cup double-header in August Madrid could claim to have at least matched Barca on the pitch as they fell 5-4 on aggregate.
Saturday’s match at Real’s Bernabeu stadium is unlikely to stray from the standard script of Barca seeking to control possession, with Real applying asphyxiating pressure and then breaking quickly when they steal the ball.
“Barca are going to dominate the ‘Clasico’ but I believe this is exactly what Madrid want,” Ajax coach and former Barca player Frank de Boer told Spanish daily El Pais on Wednesday.
“Madrid are more dangerous when they don’t have the ball because they have so many quality players who can make things happen, letting you have possession and pouncing on your mistakes.”
One big difference this time round is that Real hold the upper hand just over three months into the season.
They top the standings by three points with a game in hand and are on a run of 15 straight wins in all competitions. The pressure is on Barca to come looking for a victory.
Real have suffered six red cards to Barca’s one in the last seven ‘Clasicos’, and that has in part been due to the anxiety and frustration they have felt as they have tried to overhaul their bitter rivals.
“Madrid are euphoric and physically strong at the moment, all their players seem to be in top form,” former Real director general Jorge Valdano told Spanish radio this week.
“Barca have looked weaker on the road this season and because of this Madrid start as favourites. This has not happened for a long time.
“(The points difference means) it is inevitable there will be some anxiety and this is a terrible enemy for Barca. Madrid suffered from it before.”
The main question for Mourinho will be whether he sticks with the 4-2-3-1 formation which has served them so well of late.
The alternative, which caused Barca problems last season when Pepe stepped up into midfield, is a 4-3-3 line-up with two holding players alongside creative fulcrum Xabi Alonso.
Sami Khedira and Lassana Diarra could provide lung-busting running while a more creative midfielder such as Mesut Ozil would be sacrificed.
Top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo, La Liga’s leading assists provider Angel Di Maria and strikers Karim Benzema or Gonzalo Higuain would then provide the quick-breaking forward threat.