A Clásico without Cristiano Ronaldo or Messi... and with VAR
The Clásico is here, and it's our first without Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo in many a long year. We're seeing the effect on Real Madrid of Ronaldo not being there: Los Blancos are not scoring as many goals, and Julen Lopetegui is getting the blame, with the club looking for a replacement and making it known... discreetly. Since they can't find one, there he is still in the job, fighting for his life. As for what happens to Barcelona without Messi in their team, we'll find out in the weeks ahead. Interestingly, figures put together by football stats specialist Mister Chip show that, over the past decade, Barça have a better record without the Argentine, although that comes with the not insignificant caveat that he has tended to miss the easiest games, such as the opening rounds of the Copa del Rey.
We're likely to witness a congested midfield in today's Clásico
Both coaches are expected to reinforce their sides in the middle of the park at the Camp Nou. Marco Asensio is in such a dire slump that Madrid look likely to go with two up front - Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema - and a midfield diamond with Isco operating at its tip. As for Barça, Ernesto Valverde drafted in Rafinha against Inter Milan, and it worked well. It's Ousmane Dembélé who isn't convincing for the hosts, blowing hot and cold with ball at feet and showing a lack of work ethic without it. So, with two packed midfields, to which the full-backs' forward forays must be added, we're set to see a congested affair, with little room for manoeuvre in what we used to call the 'wide-open area' in the days of 4-2-4: there tended to be few bodies there, making it a part of the pitch that was quickly negotiated.
VAR makes its debut in a Barcelona-Real Madrid fixture
It's the first Clásico with VAR, lest we forget. Everything revolving around refereeing always provokes plenty of debate when Madrid are involved, and all the more so if they're playing Barça or Atlético. We've already seen Los Rojiblancos come away from the Madrid derby less than enamoured of the invention. We'll have to see what happens today. I fear it is being overextended in the way it is used, that the idea of only applying it to incidents that are 'geographical' in nature, and others that leave no room for argument, is not being heeded. Rather, it frequently seems to be coming into play for moments whose interpretation is subjective, which then causes frustration when other incidents are left alone. That's the state of affairs as we head into the Clásico; here's hoping that side of things goes smoothly.