After years and years of the same faces doing battle, match previews more or less go out the window as Real Madrid and Barcelona have so many familiar pieces facing off that there's little either side can do to surprise the other. However, given the rash of injuries that both superclubs have faced this season, both Rafa Benitez and Luis Enrique could be forced to tinker with their starting XIs and both benches could see some massive names waiting for their chance to make an appearance as a substitute.
The biggest such name is, of course, Lionel Messi. Having picked up a knee knock which has kept him out of action since late September, the superstar has been working fervently to try and make it back for this critical showdown. By all accounts he seems fine, but one has to wonder if he'll be coming off the bench as a second half impact sub or if Enrique will risk his talisman and start him in the hopes that he makes an impact from the get-go.
That being said, no one should tears for Barcelona if Messi doesn't get the nod as Neymar and Luis Suarez have been more than capable in picking up the slack since the Argentine's injury. Though Barcelona has gotten incredibly little from anyone else on the team in terms of scoring contributions, Neymar and Suarez should be a difficult enough challenge to overcome as both scored in last season's Clasicos. Should Messi be unavailable to start alongside them, expect Sandro to start in his place as Munir might be just a little too green for such an occasion.
The rest of the Barcelona team should be the usual XI minus Ivan Rakitic should he not be declared fit enough to make an appearance. The duo of Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta will provide leadership in the midfield in case Sergi Roberto has to start alongside them, and the back threesome of Alves-Pique-Alba has plenty of experience versus Madrid. The question is who the second CB as all of Javier Mascherano, Jeremy Matheiu and Marc Bartra could all slot in. Claudio Bravo will handle GK duties.
On the Madrid side of things, Benitez will finally have a full roster at his disposal, a sight which we only saw once this season. However, that doesn't mean that all the big names will start as Karim Benzema picked up a little knock midweek, James Rodriguez has just returned from national team duty and Dani Carvajal has had a very long layoff. Still, it's encouraging to know that Madrid will have a bench full of game-changers no matter who starts as the likes of Isco, Jese, Marko Kovacic and Casemiro could all impact the game in their own unique way.
More on El Clásico
More on El Clásico
One issue Benitez needs to resolve, preferably in this match, is getting Cristiano Ronaldo back to his deadly best. Though the star has 13 goals in two competitions this season, only one has come against a genuine top competitor (Celta Vigo). Much of this can be attributed to the missing injured players around him and the dependence on him playing as an out-and-out striker, but the drought needs to end there's no better time than tomorrow. Should Marcelo return and should Benzema be available, expect CR to have more freedom to move around as defenders will be drawn to the former two.
The midfield is also a question, especially on whether or not Casemiro should be included in the starting XI. The most offensive look would be Kroos-Modric-James alongside the BBC, but if Benzema or James is unavaiable to start, Casemiro or Isco could slot in to provide more control either through defensive prowess or ball retention. The back four will also have a spotlight cast on it as the fullbacks aren't set in stone due to injuries to Marcelo and Carvajal. However, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane will likely be the CB pairing - the club's best CB pairing - with Keylor Navas tending the net following his return from injury.
Tactically, expect the flank featuring Marcelo and Alves to be the key as both drive their respective offenses in the back and leave much room to be exploited. Ronaldo is heavily reliant on Marcelo's contributions so he could be limited if Marcelo isn't rolling, while Barcelona will have to devote notable resources to cover for Alves' runs forward so if Buquets slides over there that could leave a vulnerable midbelly for Madrid to exploit in transition. But again, these sides know each other so well that it's hard to see either doing something which would leave itself so exposed.
Statistically, on offense there's little to separate the two sides. Both are among the leaders in shots on target per game, possession, pass completion rate, goals, dribbles completed, fouls drawn, key passes, etc. Basically, with this much offensive talent on these rosters its normal for them to be racking up the gaudy numbers. Defensively, it's a mixed bag for both. While much has been made of the number of shots Madrid concedes per game, that's a misleading number and the team is second in goals conceded (would be first if it wasn't for a poor showing versus Sevilla). Tackle success rate and interceptions are up as well for the old school crowd that values those metrics. For Barca, the last four games have shown improvement as four clean sheets have followed, but they have conceded 12 in 11 matches including a run of eight matches in two competitions with a conceded goal (not to mention the goalfests versus Athletic, Sevilla and Celta).
But at the end of the day, all form and stats get tossed out the window when these two sides meet. Last season saw Madrid comfortably win 3-1 when they were behind Barca in the table and saw a depleted Madrid side hang tough in a late 2-1 loss in the spring on the road. The previous season saw Barca win a penaltyfest at the Bernabeu when many saw Madrid as the heavy favorites. It's just too tough to make a call either way for this fixture, all we can expect is a passionate and close duel lasting all 90 minutes.
Predicted Real Madrid lineup: Navas; Marcelo, Ramos, Varane, Danilo; Kroos, Modric, James; Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema
Predicted Barcelona lineup: Bravo; Alba, Pique, Mascherano, Alves; Busquets, Iniesta, Roberto; Neymar, Suarez, Sandro
Score prediction: Real Madrid 2-1 FC Barcelona