El Clásico Real Madrid vs Barcelona: possible starting XIs for the match
The absence of Karim Benzema is a blow for Madrid, who may turn to Gareth Bale, while Xavi is likely to name a side almost unchanged from Galatasaray.
Real Madrid and Barcelona will contest the 248th Clásico at the Bernabéu on Sunday with both sides in a rich vein of form. Carlo Ancelotti’s side have not been beaten at home since January 2021, a run of 24 games without defeat on their own turf. Xavi’s resurgent Barcelona are scoring for fun and conceding few, and come into the game on an unbeaten run of 11 games that has seen the Catalans into the top three in LaLiga and the last eight in the Europa League.
Barcelona riding high on Pedri, Auba and Torres
Much of Barcelona’s renaissance can be attributed to some excellent business in January, which was carried out despite the Camp Nou coffers being empty. Ferran Torres arrived for a fee of €55 million from Manchester City, a transfer made possible by the retirement of Sergio Agüero and the removal of the bulk of Philippe Coutinho’s wages from the bill. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang arrived on a free from Arsenal, a “gift from heaven” according to Xavi and one who has already delivered seven goals in 10 games, and Adama Traoré was perhaps surprisingly loaned back to his formative club from Wolves to add some bite on the flank that Ousmane Dembélé was expected to vacate. That Xavi has reintegrated the France winger when it seemed his cause was lost at Camp Nou is another feather in the coach’s cap and another threat to Madrid on Sunday, who will be shorn of the defensive solidity of Ferland Mendy on the left of defence.
That could prove to be a key battle ground in the Clásico. Carlo Ancelotti has two options to deputize for the Frenchman: Nacho, who will provide more positional awareness at the back, and Marcelo, who offers more of a threat going forward on a side of the pitch that Barça have their own issues on in the absence of the vastly improved Sergiño Dest and Sergi Roberto. The Brazilian has been a fleeting presence this season but popped up at a crucial moment away at Mallorca to feed Benzema for the only goal of the game but it remains to be seen if Ancelotti will risk exposing the space he tends to leave behind him against the pace of Traoré and Dembélé, despite the magisterial covering ability of Éder Militão.
Benzema out for Real Madrid
Ancelotti’s primary problem though is the absence of Karim Benzema. The France striker has been ruled out with a muscle issue in his calf and despite a packed squad Madrid genuinely have no replacement for the striker, who has bagged 32 goals in 34 appearances in all competitions this season - his best return since the 2011-12 season under José Mourinho – with 22 and 11 assists in LaLiga. That statistic is doubly pertinent for Ancelotti as he mulls his line-up for the game. The vast majority of those assists have been for Vinicius, who thrives alongside his mentor but tends to struggle when the onus is on him. No two players have combined as often in Europe’s “big five” leagues this season and Vinicius is patently better deployed on the left than through the middle.
Luka Jovic has fallen completely out of the picture, failing to even make the bench for the Mallorca game, while Isco and Mariano will hardly inspire the same sort of confidence that Benzema oozes. Marco Asensio is another player who struggles when moved inside from the touchline and Eden Hazard has been little more than a spectator of late. That suggests that Ancelotti may turn to Gareth Bale again, as he did away at Villarreal, in a gambit that paid some dividends and will at least give Vinicius and Asensio someone to sling the ball at. On the basis of Bale’s aerial prowess, Lucas Vázquez may get the nod on the right of the attack to provide some ammunition and some extra legwork tracking back. The chances of Mariano or Jovic starting are as remote as Hazard seeing his name on the team sheet, although Ancelotti has proven this season that there is always a second chance under his tutelage.
Xavi’s Barcelona settled
The visitors, meanwhile, are unlikely to make too many changes from the side that beat Galatasaray in midweek. Dest’s absence will see either Dani Alves or Ronald Araújo drafted in at right back but otherwise Xavi will be tempted to stick with the XI that saw off the challenge of the Turkish giants. Pedri has, at the age of 19, perhaps become the most important player in this Barcelona side and will be one to watch again in the Bernabéu.
Real Madrid vs Barcelona: predicted starting XIs
Real Madrid: Courtois; Carvajal, Militão, Alaba, Nacho; Casemiro, Kroos, Modric; Lucas Vázquez, Bale, Vinicius.
Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Dani Alves, Eric García, Piqué, Jordi Alba; Frenkie de Jong, Busquets, Pedri; Traoré, Aubameyang, Torres.