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Spanish La Liga: El Clasico Preview

Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane and Barcelona's talisman Lionel Messi

The football world will come to a screeching halt this Saturday afternoon as club legend as a player, Ronald Koeman takes charge of his beloved Barcelona for the first time as a manager in the 245th edition of El Clasico. At the opposite dugout, Zinedine Zidane will be hoping to distance reigning champions Real Madrid from their greatest rivals and give Los Blancos an early advantage in the hopes of defending their La Liga title.

Both Barca and Real suffered 1-0 defeats to Getafe and Cadiz respectively, which displayed their weaknesses at the worst possible time, a week before the biggest clash on their calendars. It was the first time since May 2000 that both the Spanish giants lost on the same day without scoring a single goal.

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Spanish La Liga
Saturday 24 October
Camp Nou
16:00

To win
Barcelona 23/20
Draw 51/20
Real Madrid 22/10

Barcelona

Prior to the season beginning, there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Camp Nou with arguably the greatest footballer to ever lace up a pair of boots requesting to leave the Catalans after spending his entire professional career at the club that he joined at the tender age of just 13.
 
Lionel Messi wanted out for numerous reasons, namely the lack of ambition and poor standard of recruitment being shown over the last few seasons. But the Argentine maestro wasn’t allowed to leave unless potential suitors tabled an offer of €700 million Euros at the La Liga headquarters.

In these unprecedented times, it was always going to be impossible for anyone to afford that price tag which meant Messi had to buckle down and get set for another season of mediocrity at Barcelona. Koeman garners respect from his achievements as a player but now has to prove his metal as a coach at one of the biggest football institutions across the world.

Following his first loss as Barca manager away to hardworking Getafe, the Dutchman will have to work out a plan that will penetrate the tightest defence across Europe last season and keep Zidane’s men from finding the back of the net at the same time.

Koeman admitted after the Getafe defeat that he is shorthanded after failing to sign fellow countrymen Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum in the previous window but look at adding more quality to the squad in January, though in order for the Blaugrana to buy, they have to sell players first. This highlights how much the coronavirus has affected even clubs with the stature of Barcelona.

Goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen is expected to return to action next week (31 October). This game will come too soon for the German, therefore, Brazilian Neto will continue to deputize in his absence, while defenders Samuel Umtiti and Jordi Alba are big doubts that will face late fitness tests to determine their involvement in this must-win game. New boy Sergino Dest has filled in for Alba, with the 19-year-old right-footed American playing left-back and Sergi Roberto at right-back.

Midfielder Frenkie De Jong owes the team a stellar performance following his poorly timed tackle that gave Getafe a penalty last Saturday. The Dutch midfielder is yet to showcase the consistency he showed at Ajax but is expected to improve in his second season and there’s no other opponent that would endear himself more to the Catalan faithful than playing a significant role in beating Real Madrid.

Miralem Pjanic will experience his first El Clasico following his switch from Juventus. The silky midfielder with an eye for a pass knows exactly what it takes to tame the Real Madrid beast as the 30-year-old Bosnian was a part of the Juve team that left the Santiago Bernabeu 3-1 victors during a 2018 UEFA Champions League clash that included the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.

Antoine Griezmann, Philippe Coutinho and 17-year old wonderkid Ansu Fati will all be looking to stake their claim for starting XI berths if given the opportunity to showcase their talent.

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Real Madrid

Real Madrid have also failed to bring in fresh faces with the squad ageing. Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez were frozen out of the first team by Zidane, with the duo now in the Premier League where Rodriguez’ class has shone through and Bale made his first appearance last weekend.

Reinier, Sergio Reguilon, Brahim Diaz, and Dani Ceballos were deemed to be surplus to the squad and loaned out as well, with highly-rated Moroccan full-back Achraf Hakimi also sold to Inter Milan. If players of this calibre are allowed to leave then the level of the squad is very impressive.

No significant signings of serious intent were made by Real Madrid with multiple reports linking the Galacticos to the prodigious talents of goal-scoring machines Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland in the upcoming transfer window.

To make matters worse, Eden Hazard is set to face another spell on the sidelines after suffering a muscle injury last month and is only expected to return to the first team next weekend, 30 October. The Belgian has had a horrid time with injuries since making his dream move from Stamford Bridge to the Bernabeu.

Zidane has signed a brilliant player when fully fit but missing 35 matches in 16 months for seven separate injuries must surely ring the warning bells. Norwegian midfielder Martin Odegaard was touted for greatness since he was in high school, following several loan moves. The 21-year-old is now deemed ready for the first-team by Zidane, having impressed in the opening games for Real Madrid as well as international matches for Norway alongside Haaland.

The main concerns going into this match is in defence with captain Sergio Ramos substituted after the first half against Cadiz last week and was seen with ice packs strapped around his left knee while he watched the second half from the stands.

Spanish defender Nacho deputized for Dani Carvajal who is only expected back next week (30 October). Zidane’s success last season was based on the best defence across Europe and without these two key performers, it could spell danger for his troops.

There isn’t enough quality in depth compared to the past squads. Isco, Luka Modric and Lucas Vasquez were pulled off at half-time for below par performances against newly-promoted Cadiz.

Personally, I feel Toni Kroos and Modric are class players but also have to be used wisely. Both midfielders don’t have the energy and youthful exuberance as they did in previous seasons. I’d select either one with Brazilian Casemiro in a deep-lying midfield role and 22-year-old Uruguayan Federico Valverde must be given more game time to showcase his talent.

Zidane has opted for speed on the flanks in the form of Vinicius Junior, Lucas Vazquez, Rodrygo or Marco Asensio to stretch the opposition defence so that veteran striker Karim Benzema can target the weaknesses created. It is going to be a game of fine margins as both sides won’t want to succumb to their bitter rivals.

Probable line-ups:

Barcelona: 4-3-3
Neto; Roberto, Pique, Lenglet, Dest; Busquets, De Jong, Coutinho; Messi, Griezmann, Fati.

Real Madrid: 4-3-3
Courtois; Nacho, Varane, Ramos, Mendy; Casemiro, Kroos, Valverde; Vinicius Jr, Benzema, Rodrygo.


Prediction: Draw (51/20)
A cagey passion-filled encounter is expected. These sides played to a goalless draw in this fixture last season and I’m predicting another stalemate as both teams seek to avoid consecutive defeats.

Written by Bryan Naicker