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Great rivalries

Great rivalries
B arcelona and Real Madrid currently sit first and second, respectively, in the La Liga table, trending in opposite directions. Barca have failed to win just twice in 2015, 1-0 defeats to Real Sociedad and Malaga, while Real has won just once in its last four and has five losses since the new year.

Barcelona’s 6-1 win over Rayo Vallecano on March 8, combined with Madrid’s 1-0 loss to Bilbao the previous day, saw Barca take over at the top of La Liga for the first time since November.

While Real goes through turmoil, nearly losing its comfortable lead after the first leg of the Champions League round of 16 to a much younger and less experienced Schalke side, Barcelona seems to have come through its own crisis of form unscathed. Heading into a home Clasico after defeating Manchester City much more comfortably at the same stage in midweek, Barca is favoured to win on Sunday despite shorter rest.

Every player but Ivan Rakitic and Dani Alves played the full 90 minutes on Wednesday, but with three full days between two home matches and El Clasico not kicking off until late Sunday night, expect the same starting XI. The only likely change is goalkeeper Claudio Bravo resuming his usual league duties in place of Champions League goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Barcelona will play its traditional 4-3-3 at Camp Nou with a single pivot in midfield. Sergio Busquets’ ankle ligament troubles mean Javier Mascherano should play as the central anchor, a role he fills in rotation with Busquets when both are healthy. The creative midfield pairing changes frequently, but Rakitic and Andres Iniesta usually line up together for manager Luis Enrique in important matches. Ahead of them, Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi are the most obvious lineup choices.

Madrid’s star-studded front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale should start together for just the second time against Barcelona. Their only other joint appearance in a Clasico came in Madrid’s 4-3 league loss in this fixture a year ago.

They headline manager Carlo Ancelotti’s typical hybrid system between a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, with Ronaldo tucked inside next to Benzema and Bale flared wide right in a more traditional wing role. Isco starts central but pulls left to fill the gap Ronaldo leaves defensively, and left back Marcelo bombs down the flank regularly to support the attack. Toni Kroos will be Real’s primary distributor, but he’s far from a traditional defensive midfielder, so Isco and Luka Modric will have to track back to support. Modric should make his third appearance and second start since his thigh injury on international duty in November.

Perhaps Ancelotti’s most contentious decision will come in goal, where club captain Iker Casillas is almost guaranteed to start despite quickly waning form. Keylor Navas took over against former club Levante in Real’s last league game, but all indications are that was just another token appearance for the Costa Rican. Barcelona and Real Madrid’s very nature as teams are on opposite poles. Real relies on its individuals to come through, while Barca’s collective mentality leaves no room for massive egos.

Ronaldo and Messi perfectly personify the clubs’ differences. Both have a penchant for flashiness, but Messi’s usually comes with a pass to an open teammate for whom he has created space, while Ronaldo tends to work for himself. Madrid’s purchasing philosophy, Florentino Perez’s Galactico strategy begun in his first term as club president and continued in his second, gives Ancelotti unending puzzle pieces to fit together. Barcelona emphasizes bringing players through its La Masia academy and instilling the same style throughout the club pyramid. As such, expect a fair amount of individualism around the penalty area from Madrid as it tries to score, also utilising its superior athleticism. On the other end, Neymar, Messi and Suarez will try to combine with the midfielders and overlapping fullbacks to create a pinball effect.

Still, Madrid won’t eschew team play for all-out Route 1 football, as it is just as capable of producing mesmerising combinations. Rather than attacking through the zone on top of the penalty area, though, Real are more likely to drive toward the endline and swing crosses into dangerous spots in front of goal.

Real is one of the most tactically malleable teams on the continent. It can win through out-possessing opponents or absorbing and counterattacking when it has less control of the match. Barcelona’s weakness in defending set pieces and Real’s ability in dead-ball situations could also produce opportunistic chances for the visiting Madridistas, even if Barca keep the majority of possession.

Intrigue never runs short in El Clasico. Contrasting clubs with differing schools of thought always offer unpredictable battles in any 90-minute period, especially when coupled with the passion of an intense rivalry and major title implications.

The last time Madrid dropped two of three matches, it rattled off six without a loss. Real might be struggling, but a win in Camp Nou could kickstart a second-half surge that still sees it lift two major trophies before summer. Meanwhile, Barca will want to avoid a return of crisis talks that descended with heavy questioning of Enrique’s abilities earlier this season. Soon after, the team completed an 11-match winning streak that tied Pep Guardiola’s record at the club, which remains in contention for the treble. Modern football is a game of short memory and quick judgment, but the momentum and milieu of a win in El Clasico lasts a bit longer than the average kind of victory in 2015. That’s the enigmatic prize up for grabs on Sunday.

Another player likely to play a crucial role for Real is their French striker Benzema, an established force in Spain now who has firm backing of Ancelotti. But his Barcelona counterpart Suarez, 28, still has plenty to prove. He had a slow start to his Barca career after making his debut in October’s 3-1 ‘Clasico’ defeat at Real following a four-month ban for biting an opponent.

He has started to move up the gears since the turn of the year and looks to be getting close to his lethal best. Benzema, who has also been targeted by disgruntled fans at the Bernabeu in previous years, is enjoying one of his most successful seasons since joining Real in 2009. As well as scoring goals, the pair are known for their work rate off the ball, tracking back to challenge for possession and making intelligent runs that open up space for teammates.

Meanwhile, Barca’s Rakitic and Real’s Kroos, two midfielders with gifted passing ability, will be expected to dictate play for their respective teams and their success or failure could go a long way to deciding the game’s outcome. Both are in their debut seasons with their clubs after Germany’s Kroos joined Real from Bayern Munich and Rakitic of Croatia moved to Barca from Sevilla. Kroos, 25, was a key performer for Germany in their triumph at the 2014 World Cup and has made sure that Real have not missed former Spain midfielder Xabi Alonso, now at Bayern.

While Kroos mainly excels at long-range shooting, Rakitic, 27, can also score from distance but has the additional ability to time runs into the box to finish off one of Barca’s trademark passing moves and is generally more effective than the German at playing the killer pass to create a scoring chance.

MESSI vs RONALDO

There is no secret to Barcelona’s success.Messi is back to playing at a level reminiscent of his best days under former coach Pep Guardiola. Luis Enrique has moved Messi back to his original position on the right side of Barcelona’s attack, and Messi is flourishing both as a scorer and in his newfound role as the team’s best passer and playmaker. Not surprisingly, Madrid’s troubles coincide with a dip in form from Ronaldo. Ronaldo once held a big lead over Messi in goals scored in the league, 23-13 through 15 matches. Messi has since gone on a scoring streak with 19 goals in the last 12 games, while Ronaldo has notched five. Messi now leads Ronaldo 32-30 in the league and 43-41 overall.

NEYMAR v GARETH BALE
Neymar has had an excellent second season at Barca after a fine performance for Brazil at the World Cup. Considered more of an out-and-out goal scorer than Bale, the 23-year-old’s on-field partnerships with Messi and fellow forward Luis Suarez have flourished this term and Neymar has 17 goals to his name in La Liga, three in the Champions League and six in the King’s Cup. Bale, 25, has yet to justify his record price tag and was whistled by Real fans in recent weeks after going nine games without scoring. However, he bounced back with a double against Levante at the weekend and has a habit of coming good on the big occasions.

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