Key clashes to decide Clasico

The clash between Real Madrid’s new midfield hope, and Barcelona’s returning central figure, could go a long way to deciding tonight’s La Liga Clasico.

Key clashes to decide Clasico

The clash between Real Madrid’s new midfield hope, and Barcelona’s returning central figure, could go a long way to deciding tonight’s La Liga Clasico.

A lot has changed for both teams since the game was postponed back in October, with the emergence of Madrid youngster Fede Valverde and recall of long-time Barca servant Ivan Rakitic key to both sides clicking into form.

A big factor in underperformance at both clubs through the early months of the season were issues in midfield. Madrid’s well established creators Luka Modric and Toni Kroos were often overrun, while Barca struggled to incorporate summer signings Frenkie de Jong and Antoine Griezmann.

Valverde was not initially seen as the answer by Blancos coach Zinedine Zidane, who had identified Paul Pogba as the player to revitalise his midfield. The 21-year-old Uruguayan did not start a 2019/20 Madrid game until late September. But bit by bit, Zidane turned to the athletic six footer to provide the thrust and energy his team has often lacked over the last two years.

A big moment was a man of the match performance in October’s 3-2 victory over Granada, when Madrid’s second and third goals both came from Valverde winning the ball back in the opposition half.

“Fede is a modern player, with a fantastic engine,” Zidane said that day. “He works hard in attack and defence. I’m delighted he’s getting to play, he deserves it.”

‘El Pajarito’ [‘the little bird’] also started to add previously unknown creativity on the ball to his physical gifts. Two goals and two assists in four La Liga games brought a fans player of the month award for November, with barnstorming displays reminding local pundits of former Liverpool star Steven Gerrard.

“Zidane has given me the confidence to be a starter,” Valverde said this week. “It’s not easy to put a 21 year old kid into tough games, especially when the team is being criticised. He asked me to work hard, and show what I can do on the ball.”

Valverde is sure to start his first Clasico tonight alongside Casemiro and Kroos in the centre of the park, and may even be detailed to man-mark Barca talisman Lionel Messi. Zidane’s main selection question is whether to also include Modric as a fourth midfielder, or bring back winger Gareth Bale due to the Welshman’s record of performing in big games.

Meanwhile, at the Camp Nou, Rakitic also started the season on the outside. Barca’s board tried to move on the 31 year old last summer, and blaugrana coach Ernesto Valverde started him in just one of the team’s first 18 games.

The plan was to balance the books by selling on a player whose best days had passed, while making space for younger options De Jong and Arthur Melo.

Rakitic however refused to budge, and was then badly missed as midfield malfunctioned.

In particular neither De Jong nor Arthur looked comfortable to the right of ‘holder’ Sergio Busquets, a role which also includes covering lots of ground as Messi does not often track back.

With Brazilian Arthur not helping his recovery from a groin strain by going snowboarding in Andorra, Valverde turned to Rakitic for the recent crunch games against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League and Atletico Madrid in La Liga. Both games saw Barca perform better and get crucial victories.

Valverde had been visibly irritated by regular questioning about Rakitic through the early months of the season, but admitted last weekend that:

Ivan has started to play, and if that is the case, it is because he has earned it.

A previously mooted January transfer to Manchester United or Everton now looks impossible.

“Most of all what I want to do is play well if I get the chance, and show my teammates they can count on me,” Rakitic said after that Atletico win. “I still have a lot more to give. I didn’t understand [being left out], but you have to accept things. If I can play, there is no better place to do it than Barcelona.”

An excellent Clasico record is another reason why Rakitic must start. He has lost just once in 11 La Liga and Copa del Rey meetings with Madrid, and hit the only goal when the teams met most recently at the Bernabeu last March.

An in-form Messi is obviously the Clasico’s most likely match winner — but a lot will depend on whether Rakitic’s tactical work offers him a platform to shine, or whether Valverde’s youthful energy shuts down the space he thrives in.

Two players who might not have even featured had the Clasico not been postponed in October, could now have a vital impact on a game which will go a long way to deciding the destination of the 2019/20 La Liga title.

Who’ll be wrapping up the Christmas No.1 spot?

Heading to Christmas No.1

Approaching the halfway point of the season the two sides are locked together at the top of the La Liga table on 35 points, with Barcelona assuming the top position with a slightly better goal difference. So the top spot heading towards Christmas is up for grabs at the Nou Camp, with a final round of games before the winter break to come at the weekend.

Awkward hotel lunch?

This game was originally supposed to be played in October but it was postponed due to safety fears surrounding the violent protests in Catalonia. Those concerns remain, and with more protests planned, it was confirmed that both teams would be at the Nou Camp two hours before kick-off tonight and will make the journey at the same time, having shared the same hotel pre-match. Madrid will join their hosts in the Hotel Princesa Sofia close to the ground.

Madrid out for revenge

Recent memories of travelling to the Nou Camp are not good for Madrid, as it is just over a year since they lost 5-1 in La Liga — a result that ended the reign of manager Julen Lopetegui. They’ve won just one league game in there since 2012 — three years ago — and will be looking for revenge.

Gareth lost his bottle?

Gareth Bale has attracted more negative headlines this week after he was spotted taking on the ‘bottle flip challenge’ during Madrid’s 1-1 draw at Valencia on Sunday. Bale, whose spell at the Bernabeu looks to be coming to an end, is hardly endearing himself to the club’s fans in the wake of the ‘Wales, golf, Madrid in that order’ flag controversy. Is there one last big performance for Los Blancos left in the tank ahead of a possible exit next month?

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