Not for the first time, nor almost certainly the last, Sunday’s clasico at the Santiago Bernabeu will very probably decide the destination of the 2016-17 La Liga season trophy.
Victory for Real Madrid will put ‘Los Blancos’ into a six point lead, with a game in hand and a better head to head while a Barcelona win will put them level on points, give them the better head to head and announce to the 400 million plus people watching the game around the world that with five games left to play, rumours of their demise have been well and truly exaggerated and that the title race is still very much on.
But if La Liga is, as many believe it to be, the best league in the world and Real Madrid and Barcelona its two best sides what I wonder is the best possible 11 that can be picked based on their form.
Here’s my choice, why I’ve picked up them and why I have left certain players out.
This is far from the first time that I, or many pundits, have carried out this exercise, but rather worryingly for Barcelona, I can’t recall any time in recent years when it has been easier to pick a top XI. Many - myself included - believe this to be a Barcelona in transition, a side facing the end of an era, and making one v one choices in the selection of a top 11 line serves as stark confirmation of the fact.
This season, not surprisingly, much has been made of the life saving qualities of the Barcelona front three (more of them later) but in truth if Barcelona do manage to sneak in just ahead of their Castillan rivals then they will owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Marc-Andre ter Stegen who has been immense for the Catalans this season and is almost certainly one the major reasons why Real Madrid are not already home and hosed.
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Non-stop chatter about the future of Keylor Navas will not exactly have filled Madrid’s very capable Costa Rican goalkeeper with confidence and it is very likely that his days at the Bernabeu are numbered.
Much of Barcelona’s problems this season have emanated from the full back positions. Dani Alves showed in a Juventus shirt against his former club just what they had let slip through their fingers, and while Aleix Vidal looked like he might just grow into the task as his replacement, a broken leg put an end to that plan.
The attempted conversion of Sergi Roberto from midfielder to right full back has not always worked either, and like it or not, Barcelona are now going to have to go shopping for a right back, and quickly.
Jordi Alba is unquestionably Luis Enrique’s best option at left back although his reluctance to play him regularly would suggest that their isn’t exactly the greatest of chemistry between the two and Alba’s body language as he frequently warms the bench is palpable.
The inclusion therefore of Dani Carvajal and Marcelo in the full back berths is a no-brainer. Marcelo may on occasions lack something in his defensive duties but more than compensates for that by frequently being one of his side’s best alternative attacking options as he showed in extra time in this week’s Champions League semi final against Bayern Munich.
Likewise, Carvajal who is strong, uncompromising and efficent at the back is also a constant danger in attack down the right flank.
In the centre of defence Gerard Piqué’s performances at the back have been one of Barcelona’s saving graces this season as he continues to defy those critics who would love to see him fail for reasons that have nothing to do with football while Sergio Ramos seems to have been with us for ever and now frequently adds to his CV the role of match winning striker to that of one of the greatest defenders ever to pull on a Real Madrid and Spain shirt.
In a straight fight for holding midfielder the evergreen Sergi Busquets gets the nod over Casemiro simply because of his importance to the team. Without Busquets, whose form has been up and down, Barcelona are not the same side and Luis Enrique’s idea to bring Andre Gomes in as his long term replacement has been a comprehensive failure.
It is in the midfield where the battles between heart and head take place. Andres Iniesta has been one of the true greats - arguably THE greatest - in Spanish football and is without doubt a big match player. But the sands of time run for him as they do everyone and his performances very often this season have been a perfect demonstration of how this Barcelona side is coming to the end of a cycle.
If teams were picked with the heart and not the head, then there isn’t a line-up that Andres would fail to make. My head tells me however that Luka Modric - also perhaps approaching the crossroads of his career - is the better option despite some lacklustre performances of late.
Ivan Rakitic on top form should play along side him. Unfortunately - and this is certainly not all his fault - top form is not what he has displayed for much of the season and therefore Germany's Toni Kroos who after a slow opening to his Real Madrid career is getting better and better is my pick to accompany the Croatian.
In attack, both sides possess an abundance of riches and Madrid especially in their replacements. Zidane was even able to permit himself the luxury of leaving the BBC (Bale, Benzema, Cristiano) trident out of the squad completely for their recent match against Sporting Gijon.
In came the likes of Lucas Vazquez, Marco Asensio and Alvaro Morata, players craved by clubs all over the world, yet used at Real Madrid merely as extremely capable fill-ins. All of them stepped up to the plate.
In truth however while anyone of the three would walk into just about any Premier League side, on current form, barring injury or pragamatic rotation, they are never going to get the nod ahead of any member of the BBC.
Leading the line of my combined XI is Cristiano Ronaldo, unquestionably in my opinion on current form the greatest striker in the world and potentially the greatest goalscorer of all time. And the reason he has become is because he, better than anyone else, realised that he no longer had that burning pace within him that could torture the best defences in the world.
No one works harder, trains longer, fears failure more, than Ronaldo who knew that if he was to remain at the very top of his trade then he was going to have to re-invent himself. He is a fighter, and like all great fighters knows the last thing to go is their punch and no one - absolutely no one - can in footballing terms lay you out for the count more effectively than Cristiano Ronaldo.
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The inclusion of Ronaldo means there is no place in my XI for Luis Suarez although there is no way I can not include his two two team mates, Leo Messi and Neymar even though it means that Karim Benzema has to make way, while Gareth Bale’s injuries have stopped him progressing.
If there is anyone that matches Ronaldo in the dedication stakes it is the mercurial Messi, so often the saviour of this Barcelona side now careering towards transition. Along side him, Neymar, the man predicted by many to be his natural heir at the Camp Nou. That there still remains the remotest of chances that Barcelona still might creep over the line ahead of Real Madrid is due almost entirely to the deadly triumverate that despite all the club’s current woes, continue to thrill the Camp Nou and the watching world.
So who’s going to win? Real Madrid probably, but who knows. Just enjoy.