First League El Clasico key battles at the Nou Camp
Barcelona come into the game EIGHT points clear of their arch rivals after a 100 per cent start to the season – winning their opening six league games.
Real Madrid have recovered from a dismal start which saw them win just one of their first four games to chalk up four successive wins in all competitions.
Already billed as a ‘must win’ for Los Blancos if they are to successfully defend their title, tonight’s match has all the ingredients of being another class.
Defence is the biggest concern for Barca, who are definitely missing captain Carles Puyol and will almost certainly be without Gerard Pique. Converted midfielders Alex Song and Javier Mascherano have been filling in but have not formed a convincing pairing.
Right-back Dani Alves has also been below-par. Tito Vilanova is considering switching to a 3-4-3, with Sergio Busquets alongside Song and Mascherano.
Madrid have been generally solid defensively, with the notable exception of their vulnerability from set-pieces. Fortunately, Barca hardly pose a powerful threat from dead ball situations – Carles Puyol is their only player to have scored directly from a corner since the start of last season.
One potential concern is Alvaro Arbeloa’s lack of pace at rightback, which could be exposed by Cristian Tello or Pedro.
Xavi could be the key to Barca winning this game. When the veteran midfielder gets plenty of touches on the ball and is able to release his passes quickly enough, Barca can utterly take over and carve out chance after chance.
Andres Iniesta is also back from injury and should be buoyed by the recent memory of his brilliant Super Cup display against Madrid less than two months ago.
Xabi Alonso is a definite starter – his composure and distribution are key for Madrid. Alongside him, Jose Mourinho may prefer the solidity of Michael Essien to the ball skills of Sami Khedira.
But the attacking midfield position presents Mourinho’s biggest decision: he has question marks over Mesut Ozil’s attitude, realises that Luka Modric is yet to click for his new club and doesn’t trust Kaka’s consistency.
You could say that Lionel Messi is struggling for form because he’s not scored in three games…but he has still produced five assists during that period. With Cesc Fabregas back in goalscoring form, Pedro and Cristian Tello looking sharp and David Villa returning to his best, Barca have plenty of attacking options.
Madrid’s greatest strength lies in their front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria and Karim Benzema, who should get the nod ahead of Gonzalo Higuain. All three are in great form and collectively they possess the blend of power and trickery to make life very difficult for Barca’s shaky defence.