An 'El Clasico' Season Preview Part II

Jasper Juinen

The squads have been finalized and the season is really ready to hit its stride now that the the international break is over. With the help of Luis Mazariegos from Barcablaugranes.com, we are happy to bring you Part II of our "El Clasico" season preview.

Part I can be viewed here.

Who will win the Copa del Rey?

DENNIS: Madrid.  The sting of losing to Atletico in the manner that they did in last year's final was a bitter pill to swallow and will make them slightly more motivated than Barcelona.

LUIS: Real Madrid (assuming Barcelona win the league.) My prediction is that no team does the double. Real Madrid have had the advantage in recent head-to-heads, though I think the pendulum might swing, at least a little. Still, it can be razor-thin margins that decide the cup winner. I also expect Atletico Madrid to make a very strong push. They are very much a legitimate threat to win again.

 

What is Real Madrid's weakness? What is Barcelona's weakness?

LUIS: Real Madrid's weakness could be concentration. They looked off in decisive matches last year, a bit sluggish and unsure. Tactically, they have had trouble breaking down compact defenses, and the absence of Ozil probably doesn't help. In defense, the team had a weakness on set pieces despite the fact they are a relatively tall squad. Everyone knows what Barcelona's biggest weakness is: a shaky defense. Without a defensive addition in the transfer window,  that may continue. It could be their undoing. In attack, it's a lack of support for Messi. The sale of David Villa doesn't help, but the entire point of bringing Neymar on board is to address this issue.

DENNIS: For Madrid it will come to down to how quickly they can assimilate Gareth Bale into the side, both on the pitch and in the dressing room.  Much has been written about the internal dynamics of Real Madrid and Ancelotti has the difficult task of balancing a heady mix of egos, politics and undeniable talent.  There are many people to keep happy while the Italian fashions the most fluid and cohesive unit at his disposal and I think he is still figuring out what that unit is and was even before the arrival of Bale.  Now Ancelotti must readjust his plans on the fly and in the new reality of La Liga he must essentially do so with no margin for error lest Barcelona accumulate a sizeable lead, as they were able to do last year.  The Iker Casillas issue also continues to simmer slowly in the background and could become much more of a factor if the Madrid legend continues to languish on the bench.  For Barcelona it will be how they cope with a pronounced weakness in their central defense.  Gerard Pique's form has dipped noticeably over the past two years and Carles Puyol has been riddled with injuries, forcing former defensive midfield ace Javier Mascherano to permanently switch to centre back.  Mascherano has performed admirably and, in my view, has been one of Barca's unsung heroes since his arrival from Liverpool in 2010. Still this area remains one of vulnerability and concern particularly due to the swashbuckling daredevil nature of Jordi Alba and Dani Alves.  Another weakness also doubles as Barcelona's greatest strength i.e. their dogged unwillingness to deviate from their patented possession based style, even when a team has the personnel and patience to circumvent said style and get results. Granted the teams with that combination of personnel and patience are rare, but they do exist and Barcelona's unshakable faith in their methods and unwillingness to adapt has cost them opportunities to increase their already impressive trophy haul over the past few years.

Who are the bigger departures, Mesut Ozil and Gonzalo Higuain or Thiago Alcantara and David Villa?

DENNIS: The departure of Thiago, while still significant, has been mitigated by the sizzling, dynamic form of Cesc Fabregas who has been instrumental in Barcelona's three league matches, already notching four assists.  As long as Fabregas, still only 26, remains healthy his quality, sharpness and increased comfort level within Barca's system will definitely soften the blow of losing Thiago in the short-term.  An added bonus of Fabregas's stellar play is that it enables Gerardo Martino to rest Xavi on occasion, ensuring that the aging (although still influential) linchpin will be freshest when needed most.  There were rumblings near the end of the transfer window that Martino wants/wanted a true number 9/trigger man, so perhaps, if the rumblings were legitimate, the loss of David Villa will begin to be felt more acutely as Martino continues to mold the side in his image.  The sale of Villa was a little embarrassing from a business standpoint, but it can be argued that his absence has not yet been, and may ultimately not be felt on the pitch.

Real Madrid's loss of Mesut Ozil has been and will be the more significant loss on many levels.  Besides the fact that very few players have the sheer quality that Ozil has on the pitch, he was extremely popular among his teammates, with many publicly voicing their displeasure over his surprising and sudden sale to Arsenal.  Football is obviously a business (as we are incessantly reminded) and Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos, two men particularly close to the German international, will most likely move on to the pressing business at hand. But in a dressing room as complex and turbulent as Madrid's the immediate impact of Ozil's increasingly bitter and acrimonious departure could have a knock-on effect that disrupts the equilibrium somewhat for Carlo Ancelotti as he delicately tries to integrate Gareth Bale into the side.  Also, with the FIFA virus biting Madrid exceedingly hard in the wake of Ozil's sale a reasonably deep Madrid side, now looks worrying thin ahead of tricky voyage to El Madrigal for a fixture with an interesting Villarreal squad.  Being able to slip M10 back into the heart a depleted lineup this weekend is luxury Madrid no longer has and will come to regret losing out on.  Depth is also a concern upfront, although Karim Benzema is not one of those currently injured on international duty.  The loss of Gonzalo Higuain could come back to haunt Real dearly if Big Benz does suffer an injury and is lost for an extended period of time.  Such a scenario would place a huge, almost untenable, level of pressure on the promising young Alvaro Morata.

LUIS: Ozil and Higuain, but Madrid got better money for them. Thiago and Villa combined for 4,172 minutes in the 2012-13 Season, in which they scored 19 goals and handed out 12 assists. In the same season, Ozil and Higuain combined for 6,354 minutes, in which they produced 28 goals and 31 assists. However, the Madrid duo cost around €90m, compared to just about €30m for Thiago and Villa. Also, Madrid made more key additions than Barcelona, notably Asier Illarramendi and Dani Carvajal, while selling their fringe players such as Jose Callejon for better prices. Their one miss in that department is the free transfer of Kaka, but they will be saving on his huge salary.

Who will go farther in the Champions League?

LUIS: I don't think either team will win it, and I think they'll both get just as far. As hard as it may be to believe, the last time Real Madrid got farther in Europe than Barcelona was ten seasons ago, in 03-04. That's so long ago that Deportivo La Coruna, a team now relegated, themselves advanced farther than Los Blancos. That's old history, of course, and anything can happen. Cup competitions are decided by the slimmest of margins, and both teams are still legitimate threats to win it all.

DENNIS: Again, I think that Ancelotti's experience and prior success in this tournament will provide a crucial advantage for Real Madrid, particularly relative to Barcelona and I certainly see Madrid advancing further.  And also as I mentioned previously Barcelona's unwillingness to change their style of play has really seemed to become detrimental in a tournament such as the Champions League where there are numerous teams who have the resources, personnel and knowledge to achieve results against it.  Teams like Chelsea, Bayern Munich and AC Milan have become exceedingly familiar with Barca's style and are increasingly adept at finding ways to play effectively against them.

Hope you enjoyed our preview! I'd like to publicly thank Luis for coming up with this idea and for letting me be a part of it. Be sure to visit Barca Blaugranes.  Also, if you'd like more Spanish Football updates you can follow Luis's Twitter or my own @EPLiens.

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