It's that time of year, MM'ers. Real Madrid will take on arch-rivals FC Barcelona in the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in the first leg of their Copa Del Rey quarterfinal matchup. Real Madrid come into the match limping a little bit due to some injuries and inconsistent play (as we detailed earlier), while FC Barcelona have been hobbled with similar problems. But never fear! Managing Madrid has you covered: I'm going to break down some of the important matchups (and some non-matchup factors) that will play into tonight's match.
Obviously, no Clásico preview would be complete without at least a mention of the two sides' last confrontation: back in December (so long ago!) FC Barcelona came in to Madrid riding a string of disappointing results, and trailing their archrivals by 9 points. They left the Bernabéu that night with a 1-3 win against a Madrid side that jumped out to a 1-0 lead within five minutes, but conceded a lucky goal that eventually lead to their destruction. Both sides were at full strenghth: Barcelona had yet to lose David Villa to a broken leg, while Real Madrid had just recovered Angel Di Maria.
This last point neatly leads us into our first storyline of the night:
- Injuries. As Timm's recent article suggests, both sides are battling significant injuries that will significantly alter their starting lineups. Barcelona lost super-striker David Villa to a season-ending knee injury during the Club World Cup, while Real Madrid might very well be without goal-creating machine Angel Di Maria, who is still recovering from a muscle contusion. These changes could affect the very philosophy of the teams: Madrid might transition to a 4-3-3 with a defensive "trivote" (a tactic that has given Barcelona nightmares in the past) while eschewing the 4-2-3-1 speed-oriented attack without one of their speediest players. Barcelona, on the other hand, will be without David Villa and Pedro, both of whom played speedy wing positions. We can expect to see Thiago Alcántara and Aléxis Sánchez play on the wings for Barcelona.
- Cristiano Ronaldo. CR7's production during Clásicos has been mediocre at best; and choking at worst. In the Clásico in December, he was nowhere to be seen for much of the game, and only popped up to take bad shots or miss open players in space--his worst game with the Madrid shirt. Hopefully he can regain his form tonight, as Mourinho's boys will certainly need him, especially with Di Maria out.
- Lionel Messi. Messi has looked a little off the pace (for him) over the past month. He didn't score against Real Madrid in December (SHOCKING!), and he wasn't able to pick his teammates up and put the side on his back in various important matches. If Barcelona go down early again, it'll be even harder for them to rally if they have an ineffective Messi; but I wouldn't count on it as a Real Madrid fan.
- Pinto. Barcelona may very well not start Victor Valdes; Pep Guardiola has maintained his steadfast position that Pinto is their starting keeper for Copa matches--and he proved that he was serious last season when he started Pinto in the Copa final against Real Madrid (a game los blancos would win 1-0).
- Pepe. José Mourinho may well choose to play CB Pepe in midfield, as part of a defensive trivote with Sami Khedira down with an injury. While this strategy worked to great effect last season, he has not employed it yet in 2011-2012, choosing to stick to a 4-2-3-1. With injuries to Sami Khedira and Alvaro Arbeloa, Mourinho is looking a little thin both in the back and in the defensive midfield: we'll have to see which area he values more.
- Luck. Just like last Clásico, luck will certainly play a role in this Clásico. In December, Barcelona's second goal came after a shot from Xavi deflected off a Real Madrid player, and picked up enough spin to spill past a lunging Iker Casillas (who had dived the other way). This moment changed the entire match for Madrid. These little bounces, a foot here or there, can make a huge difference in this type of game. In the past couple of Clásicos, Barcelona has gotten some of the luckier breaks (though Madrid has had their fair share as well); maybe, this time that little bounce will go the other way. You never know; and that's why we watch sports.