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ElClásico is more than a football match.
Madrid is the capital of the Spain, Barcelona the capital of Catalonia and the two could not be more different in their history, politics and the cultural identities.
On the pitch, they are the two biggest clubs in the world, and I realised this more than ever when I spent six months in India. I would see Real Madrid and Barcelona shirts everywhere I went, almost every day. This is a rivalry that can be seen in cities across the globe.
The rivalry seemed to get even bigger when José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola teams went toe-to-toe with the legendary squads they had, fighting for silverware each year. Everything felt so tense in that era, but from my experience the players are very relaxed heading into this match.
I had the chance to train with the Barcelona team the week they went to the Bernabeu, won 3-0 and Ronaldinho received his famous standing ovation from the Madrid fans.
Three days before that fixture, there was a huge lightning bolt strike near the training pitch, 20 minutes into our rondo session.
Ronaldinho said to the manager, Frank Rijkaard, “This is dangerous, we can’t be out training” and Rijkaard responded calmly, “OK, get in and take a shower.” And that’s what we did.
There was no ‘extra’ training for ElClásico, everyone was so relaxed and confident ahead of the match. In their minds, these top players do prepare differently, but in training the edge is always there.
Lionel Messi has had that edge in every single session he’s been involved in; he would be biting your ankles to win the ball back, frustrated if he missed and ultra-competitive - that is something that definitely won’t have changed ahead of this clash.
Back then it was always a two-horse race for the title, but now Atlético Madrid add a third dynamic. Both Real Madrid and Barcelona are still fighting for the league and three points will be as crucial as ever with the LaLiga title race likely to go down to the very last games.
Team sheets are always closely examined for ElClásico, but for this edition they could have even larger implications on how the game pans out. Real Madrid could mirror the back-three system Barcelona have adopted in recent weeks, or we could see either team line up in 4-3-3, depending on which personnel are available.
Frenkie De Jong has formed part of Barcelona’s three-man defence but I think he will move back into midfield alongside Sergio Busquets and Pedri, where controlling the ball will be a key battle to determining which side comes out victorious.
If Koeman does make this change, the reason will be so his side can challenge for possession against Real’s midfield trio of Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos who performed so brilliantly against Liverpool in the Uefa Champions League this week.
Another fascinating battle will be on the wing with Vinícius Jr up against Sergiño Dest. Vinícius Jr was Real Madrid’s hero against Liverpool and I expect him to start after that performance, but he’s yet to find the same goalscoring form in LaLiga this season.
Dest has a lot of pace and has played well in that wing-back role, but if Real Madrid keep possession and overload their front three against the three centre backs it’ll cause a lot of problems.
There are a lot of uncertainties around the line-ups, and picking the result is just as tough. With Real Madrid’s experience winning one-off games, and being at home, I’d make them slight favourites, but this is one of the most unpredictable ElClásico’s in years. I can’t wait for kick-off to see it unfold on Saturday night.
A lot of focus will be on ElClásico this weekend, and I know the Atlético players will also be keeping a close eye on Saturday night’s fixture, but arguably Atlético’s trip to Real Betis on Sunday is the biggest game in the title race this weekend.
This game is pivotal to their season, so much so if they lose and end up behind Barcelona, it might be all over with the way they have been playing recently. However, a win could open another gap at the top and they’d be favourites again. If Atléti don’t win the league it will be because they lost it, not that Barcelona or Real Madrid were too good.
Before their 1-0 defeat to Sevilla last weekend, I thought they’d have benefitted from the international break, able to recharge the batteries, but it didn’t look like it from that performance.
Now they return to Seville to face in-form and dangerous Real Betis who are chasing down fifth spot and Europa League qualification.
No Luis Suárez; no Fernando Llorente; João Félix will need to step up, take responsibility and rekindle his form from earlier in the season and it is vital Diego Simeone’s men create more chances if they are to win this game.
Rafa Mir has been in excellent form this season and scored a brilliant brace last Friday night in Huesca’s win against Levante. Huesca again play on Friday night, live on FreeSports and LaLigaTV, in a six-pointer with fellow strugglers Elche.
A win for Huesca would see them leapfrog Elche out of the relegation zone and I think they are favourites for this, with the performance they displayed last week.
Both defensively and offensively they were excellent against Levante, Jorge Pulido had a great game, stifling Levante’s attack. If Pulido and Mir are in similar form, they should have too much for Elche.
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