Real Madrid - Barcelona: El Clásico shrouded in mystery
The plans of Setién after his private meeting with Guardiola. Braithwaite's potential inclusion in the starting XI. Kroos after his absence. Vinicius, Bale...
If there is a match that can cause an earthquake on planet football then it's El Clásico. And this one, even more. This clash between Real Madrid and Barcelona has seen recent events at both clubs gradually increase the expected magnitude on the Richter scale. The lack of bite in Los Blancos' attack has cost them both the league's top spot and put their chances of progressing to the quarter-finals of the Champions League in extreme jeopardy. Barcelona's game is to defend itself by having the ball, but reluctantly creates danger with it.
It's the first Clásico for Quique Setién, who asked for some advice from an expert in assaults on the Bernabéu. Then there's the goal difference/head-to-head discussion and the unknown elements that accompany the names of Toni Kroos and Gareth Bale. A possible inclusion of 'emergency man' Braithwaite in a role similar to the one Gabriel Jesus took up with Man City, and the role that two teenagers, Vinicius and Ansu Fati, will likely be given to demonstrate their adult obligations, are also in the spotlight. It's an ongoing list of talking points that will not be concluded until the game is upon us...
Setien's first Clásico
The Cantabrian coach has always confessed to being an admirer of FC Barcelona and his arrival was described as 'a lifelong dream' being fulfilled. For now, the doubts outweigh the certainties, at least in regards to the playing style. In terms of results, he has managed to regain the lead in the table and looks to have a much more achievable passage to the next round of UEFA's top competition than today's rivals.
In preparation for his debut in this global fixture he popped over to the Spanish capital midweek to have a firsthand view of the set-up against City. In addition, he got to sit down and plan a 'double' against Los Blancos with Pep Guardiola. "We've looked back at some of the games played before - the game Barça played last year, the game Betis played last year," said the coach.
"You try to pick out things that could be useful."
It remains to be seen what the 'secrets' are that the new boss confessed to, but with six victories in nine visits to the Bernabéu, something is working.
Will Zidane put the onus on midfielders like in the Spanish Super Cup? Will he return to 4-3-3 which was assumed to be his default system for his new Madrid? Will Bale get to support Benzema up top? Will there be any casualties in the middle of the park?
There are so many questions to ask over what the French coach will do, especially as performances haven't always tied up with results, in both directions. His decision to rest Ferland Mendy last week, with the threat of suspension over him, almost guarantees his starting berth at left-back. There are other undisputed starters too, but the remaining pieces are where the most doubts lie as he bids to win his first LaLiga Clásico at the Santiago Bernabéu. In the corresponding match at the Camp Nou, a 4-4-2 with Bale was the choice, and Modric was the victim.
Toni Kroos and Gareth Bale
While the Welshman has become a regular part of discussions over the uncertainties at Real Madrid, the German midfielder has never had to. Kroos had been instrumental throughout the season (and ever since he moved to the club) and after Casemiro, is the most used midfielder by Zidane, with 2,543 minutes on the pitch.
So it came as a surprise to most when he was not included in the starting XI for the huge game against Manchester City. Both manager and player have made it clear that there was no physical problem behind his absence, it was simply tactical. But there was that suspicious discussion with Guardiola that fed the rumours. Clearing that particular air would likely be done by having Kroos step out for kick-off tonight, although they would only be amplified if he misses out again. Zidane tried to extinguish any of the doubts at the pre-match press conference telling journalists and fans that when a player, in this case Kroos, is left out, they didn't need to go looking for a story that isn't there. Some were less convinced.
Just as the manager is hoping to use the Clásico to turn the tide of recent games, Bale too can look upon this game as his chance to prove some people wrong. One of those would be Zidane himself, although divorce proceedings already appear to be well down the line in that particular relationship.
The role of Braithwaite
The Danish striker's recent arrival was seen as a sticking plaster over a temporary, but slow-healing wound. As it turns out, he could actually be a solution for El Clásico. In the last training session ahead of the fixture, the former Leganés man accompanied Messi and Griezmann as the attacking trident. His characteristics resemble those of Gabriel Jesus, a player who caused Zidane's defenders plenty of problems midweek.
With the Champions League not an option for him this season - his move came after the deadline for UEFA registrations - a singular focus on LaLiga games could be the ideal situation.
Vinicius and Ansu Fati: youthful injection
The prodigal sons. Both teenagers are prepared to be thrown in to the Clásico cauldron. At 19, Vinicius has seen his fledgling career follow the path of an unpredictable roller coaster, seemingly a key part of the side at times, and not consistent enough to be at others. The new year has been one of the most promising spells, and with Eden Hazard's injury meaning more gametime is on the cards, he has a chance to really stake his claim to the left attacking zone.
He was one of the brighter elements of the game against City, and Zidane may opt for him to try and get the 12th man Bernabéu crowd on their feet as he runs at the Barça backline. It may be, of course, that Bale is handed a start with the Brazilian having to wait for his introduction off the bench.
In the blaugrana corner, sits Ansu Fati, the 17-year old that burst onto the scene breaking records as fast as he ran past stranded defenders. He has since been used sparingly in his early development, but a lack of options for Setién means that he is very much in the weekly reckoning. Braithwaite's arrival may hinder his chances as the manager aims to use each of his frontmen's attributes depending on the opposition.
Head-to-head and goal difference
With such a gap between the sides in recent league tables, the idea of needing to refer to their head-to-head record to split them has been almost forgotten. This campaign, however, suggests it could return to play.
If Real Madrid avoid defeat at home, the difference between them with be no more than two points going into the final stretch of games. On paper, at least, Barça appear to have the harder run-in and the prospect of the two giants ending the campaign on the same number of points does not seem too far out of reach.
For LaLiga their records against each other would be the first aspect looked at: a 0-0 result in Camp Nou means that a win or a score draw would give Setién's side the edge. If neither goal is breached, their overall goal difference would decide the winner. Currently Barça's sits at +33 compared to +29 for Los Blancos.
Contrastingly similar moods
Both sets of fans have had a sense of schadenfreude over the past week. Barça's 1-1 draw against Napoli had Madrid supporters smiling, especially as many want to maintain their continental dominance over their eternal rivals. Then came City, and the emotionally feeling of superiority swung in the opposite direction, and more so.
A Clásico win for either side tonight could be the spur that is needed for the final dash to the title. There are many questions to be answered, and we do not now have to wait too long from being provided with answers.