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El Clasico-Barcelona Vs. Real Madrid, La Liga 2013: Match Preview

In what has already been a grueling week for both sides, Real Madrid and Barcelona will face each other for the first time this season tomorrow in the Camp Nou. As always, the match will have dramatic implications within La Liga, not to mention exert a telling psychological impact on both teams as they press forward into the teeth of the campaign. There are few things that need no further introduction in this world.

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David Ramos

But don't take my word for it. Here is Neymar speaking to Barcelona TV about his first Clasico:

"I don't think there is any need to explain what this match is all about. Even though players might never have participated in one, they understand the importance of a game between Barcelona and Real Madrid. A 'clasico' is the pinnacle for any player. It's the game everyone wants to play in and demonstrate their best football.

I start with those words because I think they eloquently sum up the essence of the most spectacular, decorated and bitter rivalry in world football, but also because I believe Neymar represents the X-factor in this match.

Ex-Barca boss Pep Guardiola famously remarked that Cesc Fabregas's return to Barcelona in 2011 had introduced an element of "anarchy" into his side's intricately styled football.  But even after nearly a decade in the Premier League--Fabregas still had the La Masia ethos in his DNA and was ultimately able to blend back into Barca's unique rhythm. Neymar is something else entirely and the Brazilian, born with a lethal dose of his country's own storied footballing rhythm, adds a different level of improvisational unpredictability--while still somehow fitting into Barcelona's overall structural framework. Perhaps most impressive has been his ability to draw defenders like magnets in the attacking zone, thus freeing up wide swaths of space for Barca's other money men to exploit and create goalscoring opportunities.  For this reason, I believe the selection of Alvaro Arbeloa, and the battle for the right flank in general, will be a key inflection point in this match.

Opinions on Arbeloa are often divided within the Managing Madrid community, but I think we can all recognize that he is a consummate professional and a vocal, valued leader within the Real Madrid squad. Neymar tormented Arbeloa in the Confederations Cup last summer and I'm the sure the Spanish international would love to earn a considerable measure of redemption and revenge by locking him down in front of his adoring home fans in his first Clasico. Arbeloa obviously can't match Neymar's pace, so the industry and workrate of Angel Di Maria will also be a necessary component in the bid to control the right flank. Di Maria can use his pace to push Neymar back while also threatening Adriano.  Obviously, Ancelotti and the trainers will have the truest sense of Gareth Bale's fitness levels, but from afar he does not yet appear fully fit and it would be surprising to see him start over Di Maria from the outset, particularly if (as Lucas and others suspect) Los Blancos adopt a more defensive approach to this contest.

One thing Di Maria always offers is intensity and Ancelotti inadvertently revealed something interesting while defending Gareth Bale from criticism in the Spanish press when he said:

"Bale came on when the game lacked intensity and that didn't help him to play better"

That indicates to me that he is still not fit enough to decisively influence the outcome or change the tempo of a match and that in the eyes of his manager the tempo of a given match is actually more liable to dictate his current level of play. Bale himself was admittedly uncertain about his fitness. This will be a massive decision.

As has been discussed recently, outside of a banged-up Gerard Pique, Barcelona are an extremely small side physically. At 6'3, with a huge frame, Alvaro Morata could wreak havoc on set-pieces, particularly if Pique is unable to play. The young striker also demonstrated a nicer-than-advertised touch against Malaga and could be in line for a place in Real's starting XI. What Ancelotti decides here will be fascinating, as a number observers feel that Karim Benzema will get the call. Rob Train speculates that Benzema could actually be dropped in favor of Gareth Bale and not Morata, with Di Maria shifting to the left flank and Cristiano Ronaldo operating alone up top.

It will also be interesting to see if, as indicated, Raphael Varane starts in the central defense and if so whether he partners with Sergio Ramos or Pepe. Despite his struggles at time this season--it is honestly hard to picture a Clasico without Ramos.

In the midfield, how Ancelotti chooses to deal with Sergio Busquets will be another pressure point.  In many ways Busquets is Barcelona's true lynchpin and he has become more assertive and aggressive under Gerardo Martino, mirroring, to some degree, Sami Khedira's recent evolution. More attention than ever before must be paid to the lanky midfielder. If he can be disrupted in any significant way, Real will have a chance to come away with points.

Conversely, Luka Modric is stronger on the ball than many realize and may be able to exploit any positional advantages opened on the counter with his precise, rangy passing, should Busquets be caught out in an advanced role. One tweak Ancelotti might want to consider is having Illarra, or whoever the holding mid is, play a little deeper to help compress the amount of space between the midfield and defense. This issue has plague Real a few times this season and is a flaw Barca could exploit with ruthless efficiency if it isn't properly addressed.

According to Opta, Barcelona have failed to keep Madrid off the score sheet in the Camp Nou since the November None-of-Us-Want-to-Remember in 2010, with Madrid notching 13 goals over their last 6 visits to Catalonia. Cristiano Ronaldo has accounted for 8 of those strikes, scoring on all 6 trips. Following on that is that the absolutely astonishing stat that Real Madrid have never, that's right, never lost a league match in which CR7 has scored, recording 84 wins and 6 draws.

History, though, is not on Madrid's side when the following is considered: in the previous 3 times Barcelona hosted this fixture in matchweek 10--they won without conceding a goal. This happened most recently in 1985 when Madrid lost 2-0.

The clock is ticking. What are your thoughts and predictions?

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