Last time I wrote about Real Madrid for Twelve, one month ago, Julen Lopetegui’s squad was an exciting football machine, reinventing itself with freshness and bravery, with two re-ignited veterans, Karin Benzema and Gareth Bale, finding their way where Cristiano Ronaldo used to shine.
Then came Sevilla (3-0) and a Red October, and the dreams of a coach-oriented Real Madrid have evaporated. Now we come to the first Clásico since 2007 without the Cristiano-Messi duel, and the questions seem to multiply.
After four losses in their last six matches, including being beaten by modest CSKA in Moscow, the midweek win over Viktoria Plzen (2-1) was welcome, but not authoritative.
Lopetegui gained himself some extended time, but beating Barcelona at the Camp Nou is a feat a little too far from his lads. The good news here is Toni Kroos coming back to life, after some dull matches. The bad news is that they have been hitting the woodwork far too often: 11 times in 13 matches.
Although Ernesto Valverde’s side cannot play with Messi, Barcelona are just fine. The blaugranas had a great rehearsal in a tough Champions League game, and seemed at ease against Internazionale at the Camp Nou.
Rafinha Alcantara and Jordi Alba scored in the 2-0 win, plus there was a very effective display from Ivan Rakitic. Rafinha, it must be said, came in handy and may relegate Ousmane Dembélé and Malcom to the bench again.
The creative solution proved Gerard Piqué’s words right when Messi’s elbow injury became clear: “We will miss him, but we have a team ready for every challenge”.
Barcelona lead La Liga and are four points ahead of Real Madrid, who are in a sorrowful seventh position in the table.
That does not sound as though the Spanish League is already lost for the blancos, but indicates they will step into the Camp Nou on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Unconfident and with too much to prove against a more consistent rival, the players know they are defending their coach’s project. It will be hard to relax and enjoy the ride while Brazilian midfielder Arthur shows himself at home at Busquets’ left flank, and Philippe Coutinho brings class and invention to the attack.
Though this has not been the usual Lopeteguian Madrid, it seems that Real will wait for Barcelona to come in, placing their bets on counter-attacks which will search for Gareth Bale.
Modesty is needed when the home team is favourite by a landslide and there is a noticeable lack of confidence in a side looking for survival.
Marcelo has scored two of the last three goals, but has also opened the 12th avenue. Much of this match will be concentrated in the duel between him and Arthur, who will certainly be aiming to block his countryman’s escapades.
Some attention will also be required with Luis Suárez’s new role: against Internazionale, the Uruguayan striker left his central position to open spaces in both sides of attack, thus creating Rafinha’s first screamer. That can be dangerous on Marcelo’s back, as we all know.