Real Madrid Vs. Barcelona, El Clasico 2011 Preview: Madrid Looking To Crack Barcelona Code

"I don't want to be in a battle. But waiting on the edge of one I can't escape is even worse." Get ready boys. They're coming.

Real Madrid will play FC Barcelona for the infiniti-eth time in the last year on Saturday (22:00 CET, 4:00 PM EST) at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid; the world will come to a standstill as the two best teams on the planet go head to head in football's greatest rivalry. For Real Madrid, this match will be all about building: on the results from the season to date, on the confidence gained from last year's "clásico rally" and the Supercopa, and on the positive sensations that have emanated from the club all year. For Barcelona, this match is all about confidence: wrecking Madrid's confidence with a brutal win, rebuilding their fan's confidence after going down by six points, proving that they have the heart and the confidence in their own system and skills to win this type of game.

Because that's what this clásico has become for FC Barcelona: "that type of game." A possible season-ender. A moment of reflection, inflection. For the first time in a very, very long time they will come in to a match without that vaunted mantle of "prohibitive favorites" that has stuck with them since the beginning of the Pep Guardiola era; in fact many commentators--and betting houses--have them as slight underdogs (the line is currently 2.35 to 2.89 to Real Madrid, though if I were a gambling man I'd consider betting on a draw at 3.5-1). But maybe this is exactly what this incarnation of FC Barcelona needs--a big game.

For José Mourinho's Real Madrid, this game couldn't really come at a better time: they're in the best form of any side in the world (except Lyon, whose ridiculous 1-7 Champions League win really should be investigated by UEFA), most of their important star players/benchwarmers are recovered from nagging injuries (Kaká, Arbeloa), and they're leading Barcelona by a whopping six points (which is a lot in la Liga). But hey, everyone remembers what happened last year in this early Winter fixture.

So here we are. Everyone knows the plot lines by now--"will Pep start a three-man defense?" "if Madrid wins is la Liga over?" "will David Villa start?!?!" "OMG Messi/Cristiano is SO MUCH BETTER than Cristiano/Messi"--and we're all saturated with articles about formations, tactics, and more tactics. If you're not, then check out Managing Madrid's tactical preview (courtesy of Lucas), and my brief piece on formations (also, Laila's article on team mentalities is fantastic, as is Timm's recollection of the 1943 General's Cup clásico). But if you'll humor me, I'd like to talk a little about the match here.

Instead of doing a classically-organized preview, where I talk briefly about both sides then give a prediction, I'm going to go ahead and try something new: I present to you "An Idiot's Guide to El Clásico 2011-2012".

What to Watch For

The idea behind this section is to give you some hints as to the keys to the game, things you can see happening in front of you, and things that might be happening behind the scenes.

  1. Possession. Barcelona's strategy is completely dependent on possession--both for offense and for defense. They move the ball with incredible finesse around the field with a series of rapid, precise, and most importantly short passes. It will be Madrid's job to break this tactic up as much as possible through a hyper-intense press that Mourinho debuted on the big stage in the 2011 Supercopa to great aplomb. At the center of this press is the idea that Barcelona's possession can be turned against them: Mourinho's theory (and really, it's my theory that I'm extrapolating on to Mourinho) is that there are two types of possession (I call them "positive" and "negative" possession). While Barcelona is undeniably the best team in the world at keeping possession, this does not mean that they are the best at creating "positive" possession, or possession that directly leads to scoring chances (or at least carries the very real threat of creating a scoring chance). Mourinho's strategy has, in the past, centered on turning Barcelona's possession into "negative" possession, or possession where a side lacks scoring chances either because of a lack of clear offensive ideas, a strong defensive scheme, or both. So, noticing that Barcelona is dominating possession of the ball does not imply that Barcelona will win, or are even likely to win; the key for Real Madrid will be to ensure that Barcelona's possession does not result in scoring chances, that is, that it remains as negative as possible. (Note: I'm not saying that Barça won't score, or have scoring chances. This is a feel and vision argument: what I'm saying is that Madrid need to make Barça seem as non-threatening as possible).
  2. Stamina. This one is much more for Real Madrid: they are probably going to come into the match playing a high offensive line on defense, with a huge emphasis on pressing Barcelona from the starting whistle. You'll see Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Ángel Di María dashing all over Barcelona's defensive third, pressuring Victor Valdés on goal kicks, closing in on Puyol and Mascherano, and flat-out burning themselves as far as their bodies will take them. Then these same players are going to be asked to drop back into the center of the midfield to occupy important positions in Mourinho's 4-5-1 defensive scheme. The two wing-forwards in the 4-3-3 need to drop back into the midfield (and further back) to shut down Barça's potent passing center. Perhaps their most important quality, and the thing that they really do have over Barcelona is their athleticism: very few people would argue that anyone in world football is more athletic than Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, and Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria have proven themselves time and again to be incredibly versatile, fast players, capable of changing orientation within a split second. All of this comes crashing down, however, if they're tired: they won't be able to run that ridiculously fast paced counter attack, they'll start giving up space on defense, and Barcelona will be able to circulate the ball in the back without any problems. If you wonder why Mourinho swapped Karim Benzema at halftime for Gonzalo Higuain, or Angel Di María for Mesut Özil, it's because they were tired. I'd wager really heavily on that.
  3. Luck. This might be the most obvious one of the bunch, because it encompasses everything from referees (50-50 calls like giving Pepe a red card last year) to mis-tackles (the Pepe red card last year) to mental mistakes (the Pepe red card last year) to shots going centimeters wide or off the bar (Messi's last-ditch effort against Getafe springs to mind). With Madrid's tactically violent physical press, and Barcelona's penchant for Oscar-winning flopping losing their balance, this game has some serious surround-the-referee-after-every-play potential. With that kind of pressure, it's going to come down to some little bit of luck that will influence the game one way or the other. Plus, both teams will be giving every second of the match their all, which will lead to emotions and nerves being at the absolute breaking point: mental mistakes, fights, all of this could lead to any number of things happening.

So, we know the players. The board is set. Enjoy the last 24 hours of (in)sanity, as we all take that big breath before the plunge.

For more clásico coverage don't forget to check out our brilliant hub site, SBNation Soccer.

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