Real Madrid absolutely dismantled Barça in their last meeting. Since then, Madrid got hot, then really hot, then cooled off a bit, and then cooled off some more. Barça putted along, and have been ablaze lately. Each side has had key players get injured, and had others drift in and out of form. So, what should Real do to get a similar result as they did in October? Here are a few thoughts I had scribbled down following the match in the fall:
Real Madrid in 4-4-2, Isco-Kroos-Modrić-James midfield. Barça in 4-3-3.
Marcelo and Carvajal had their way with Alba and Alves, respectively.
Messi was invisible; Pepe and Carvajal had him in their back pockets.
Benzema and Ronaldo moved laterally and created space off the ball.
Modrić and Kroos had no issues moving around Iniesta and Busquets.
Each point of emphasis will be equally important in Sunday's game. Marcelo and Ronaldo hit 1-2 passes around as if they had a telekinetic bond, and the Brazilian left-back made a fool of Jordi Alba. There haven't been many games Madrid have lost when Marcelo and Ronaldo moved well with each other, and they'll need to yet again.
Dani Carvajal was the Man of the Match in the fall, which was refreshing as it was the first Clásico in which he really shined. Carvajal isn't known for his pace, but he had no problems running with Neymar and Messi, and he led the team in tackles and interceptions.
As for Real Madrid's center-backs, it's certainly good news both Pepe and Ramos are healthy. Barcelona love to attack through the center of the pitch, and Pepe and Ramos both have tons of experience clearing these Catalan attacks. In the past, Pepe's been Messi's personal marker (as has Varane), and he's been successful in marking him.
In a word, Real Madrid's defense needs to be organized. Even Isco, who isn't known for his defensive prowess, tracked back like crazy, and this work made Modrić and Kroos' lives easier in getting the ball forward. Ancelotti employed a full team defensive effort, and Barça didn't have an answer for it.
This time around, there's no reason Madrid shouldn't have the personnel to do the same. James' defensive tenacity will be missed, but this will be the ultimate stage for Bale to exhibit how far he's come as a two-way player. Expect Real Madrid to use another 4-4-2, with only Bale replacing James in the lineup, like so:
And as important the defense will be, Real Madrid can dominate the game in the midfield.
Barcelona struggle when their midfield is pressured and sped up. Madrid succeeded in doing so, and the byproduct is a totally useless set of forwards in Messi, Neymar, and Suarez. Barça's midfield will look a very good bit different from what it did in October.
The fall's Clásico featured Xavi-Iniesta-Busquets, and Iniesta really struggled to deal with the pressure and pace of James and Modrić. Iniesta contributed nothing in defense, and failed to open things for his forwards. It was a similar story for Xavi, who was often pushed out wide and forced to put in hapless crosses.
Such is the power of the Ancelotti 4-4-2, particularly Kroos and Modrić. If you want to cut off Barcelona's flow at the source, speed up their midfielders. This is likely what Barça will be trotting out:
This time around, Javier Mascherano (a center back) will be in Busquets' role, and Ivan Rakitic in Xavi's. Regardless Barcelona will play a 4-3-3. If Sergio Busquets couldn't effectively pass out of his third, Madrid should aim to expose Mascherano, who's considerably less comfortable in possession. Ivan Rakitić has finally come around for Barça, and could very well be the one to give Madrid's midfield problems with his defensive work and pace.
And lastly, the matchup of Real Madrid's forwards against Barça's defenders. Ronaldo had a lot of success in the fall by running straight at Piqué and Mathieu. Karim Benzema put in a classic Karim Benzema performance, as he zigged and zagged and passed and opened up space for Cristiano and even slotted one home.
Barça's central defenders are great aerially, but lack pace. The flanks will be a war zone, and if Real Madrid can take over there, they'll be able to speed up the game at their will.
Replicating a performance from 5 months ago is (obviously) easier said than done. Real Madrid can gain an advantage at the Camp Nou by pressing Barça's midfield, forcing their central defenders to make decisions, running down the flanks, and most importantly, remaining organized in defense. Piece of cake, right?