The high-profile nature of this fixture generally ensures that it’s a must-win game no matter what time of the season it’s played, and wherever Barcelona or Real Madrid find themselves on the table.
However, across the last decade the Catalans have never needed to emerge victorious more than they do this Saturday afternoon. Lose to Los Blancos at Camp Nou for the second year in succession and Barca will then sit nine points behind Real.
Mathematically, the league title will still be possible but the way that Luis Enrique’s side are playing, nine points is an enormous gap to close — especially against a team that are 31 games unbeaten.
Zinedine Zidane’s hand has been forced by a succession of unexpected injuries which continue to bite harder by the week. Gareth Bale will be by far the biggest miss and the Welshman’s absence also leaves Zidane with a headache.
Should he play a 4-4-2 formation would allow Isco to reprise the role he played so well in the Madrid derby, but would relegate either Karim Benzema or another midfielder to the subs bench? This would also limit Real as it doesn’t allow for a great deal of flexibility.
A 4-2-3-1 which would have Ronaldo as a lone striker, at least allows Zidane the luxury of two defensive midfielders. Casemiro — who was Man of the Match in this game last season — and the ever-improving Mateo Kovacic.
While they sit and guard their back four, Modric, Isco and a recalled James Rodriguez will be given licence to create. Their ability to interchange positions at will is something that Barcelona haven’t been able to deal with in the past. As good as Sergi Roberto is going forward for the Catalans, he has been shown up defensively in the last few games.
If Real concentrate their attacks down that side, it will pay dividends and ensure Roberto’s own contribution is moribund. Any one of the lively trio mentioned have the beating of the youngster and I would expect most of the visitor’s attacks to come down that side.
Both teams like to utilise their midfielders as much as possible, rarely resorting to the long ball.
Although Andres Iniesta is likely to be fit again for Luis Enrique’s side, the coach may be better served by bringing him on later in the game if things aren’t working out as the hosts might like. He certainly has to play some part alongside Sergio Busquets because the defensive lynchpin has looked a shadow of his former self recently.
Against Real Sociedad in particular, Busquets was shattered with 30 minutes still to play. All of the unseen work he normally does in breaking up play has ended up falling by the wayside because of having to chase opposition players all round the pitch. Something that clearly isn’t his game. Iniesta’s presence will draw players away from the central areas, thus allowing Busquets the time on the ball he’s been lacking.
Should Casemiro play the ‘Busquets’ role for Real — as he did expertly last year — then someone like Iniesta (or perhaps Denis Suarez) is the key to unpicking the lock for Barcelona. Andre Gomes brings a much needed physical presence to his role, but not a maturity to it. For such a tall, strong exponent, he is bullied off of the ball far too easily and Barca simply don’t exert the same attacking threat with Gomes in the starting XI.
Pepe and Sergio Ramos need to reprise their roles because setpieces could be the game winner for Barca. Real have a real weakness there when their two warhorses are not in situ and, in behind a second choice centre-back pairing, Keylor Navas doesn’t confidently come for crosses either.
Rest assured Enrique will send Pique up as an auxiliary striker again if required, even if the same goes against the principles of the way the club prefer to play football.
Such a win-or-bust scenario for the hosts might finally sharpen minds that haven’t been fully focused for long periods this season.
The author is a four-time winner of European Tour titles.