Madridistas, get ready for a busy week because the 228th edition of "El Clásico" is sure to overrun your mind whether our beloved Blancos win or lose their first title-deciding game of the season. In a rematch of 2011's Copa del Rey finals, Real Madrid will take on FC Barcelona at the neutral Mestalla ground in the hopes of vindicating the two losses they've suffered at the hands of the Blaugranas earlier this season.
As expected, numerous story lines surround the Clásico, though none seems bigger than the absence of Real Madrid talisman Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese crack remains sidelined with two injures: an inflammation of the knee tendon and a minor hamstring tear in his left leg. While we're hopeful Ronaldo regains fitness in time for the Champions League semifinals against Bayern Munich, Carlo Ancelotti will have to field a team capable of toppling Barcelona without the Ballon D'Or winner's extraordinary firepower.
Naturally, our attention turns to the Madrid's most expensive signing, Gareth Bale. While Bale has put up some impressive numbers in his first Real Madrid season, he's struggled to influence the last two Clásicos. Moreover, Bale has found himself at the epicenter of a media-generated comparison that pits his output against that of Barcelona's blockbuster signing, Neymar Jr. The trades tend to pose questions like: Who will step up in the big game, Bale or Neymar? Which signing will prove to be the best return of investment? In my opinion, these story lines are tired, predictable and unreasonable as they pin an entire match's responsibility on one star player, forgetting that ten other lads have a part to play in the outcome of the game.
Now, let's turn our attention to our Catalan rivals. Lionel Messi has yet to reproduce his best form but he's still a frighteningly good player capable of changing the game with one breakaway dribble, through-ball or perfectly -placed shot. Add to that the fancy footwork of Neymar, the puppeteering of Xavi, the composure of Iniesta and the vision of Fabregas and you've got yourself a proper rival. Still, despite Barcelona's offensive dynamos, the team will be weak at the back thanks to the absence of Shakira's number one fan, Gerard Pique. Barca manager Tata Martino has not revealed whether Carles Puyol will take his rightful place as Barca's starting center back, but it seems unlikely. Instead, Barcelona's back line should include the offensively-inclined Dani Alves, fullback-in-disguise Adriano, former midfielder Javier Mascherano and insufferable pest Jordi Alba. Madrid need to exploit this line.
To do so, Carlo Ancelotti has called up the following twenty players for the final:
Keepers: Casillas, Diego López and Jesús.
Defenders: Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Varane, Carvajal, Coentrão, Nacho and Llorente.
Midfielders: Xabi Alonso, Illarra, Isco, Bale, Casemiro, Modric and Di María.
Forwards: Benzema, Morata and Willian José.
My friends, El Clásico is upon us, and I sincerely hope to be celebrating Carlo Ancelotti's first-of-many trophies with you in a few short hours. While Cristiano Ronaldo will be sorely missed, there's no denying that Real Madrid possesses a formidable team this year that can compete for any championship, starting with the Copa del Rey 2014. Let's do this. Hala Madrid!
Real Madrid vs. Barcelona kicks off at 21:30 CET/ 3:30 EST/ 12:30 PST