Mourinho’s playmaker problem

Real Madrid visit Camp Nou on Sunday for the season’s first Liga Clasico. In the weeks running up to this fixture, much has been made in the Press of the rift between Jose Mourinho and Sergio Ramos and its temporary effect on the defender’s involvement with the first team. But, with all parties looking to put that issue to bed, attention can now turn to the Coach’s real selection challenge for the weekend, in deciding who will fill the creative midfield berth against the Primera leaders.

Either Luka Modric or Mesut Ozil appear favourites for the crucial role in a game Los Blancos have to win to narrow the eight-point gap behind Tito Vilanova’s unbeaten table-toppers. With goals an essential requirement, Mourinho needs to be adventurous and to attack, which has not always his natural inclination against Barcelona.

Sami Khedira is an outside candidate to replicate the role against Barca. He initially slotted into the No 10 position in the recent Champions League win against Manchester City and then demonstrated in coming on at Ajax yesterday his eye for a pass in assisting Cristiano Ronaldo’s third goal. However, the position looks set to be between Modric and Ozil.

With the duo and Khedira all named as substitutes for last night’s game against Ajax in Amsterdam, Mourinho appeared to be giving nothing away in advance of El Clasico. Michael Essien slotted in alongiside Xabi Alonso in midfield behind Ricky Kaka, with Khedira replacing Essien and Ozil coming on for the Brazilian in the final 15 minutes of the 4-1 win. Was the final XI on Wednesday a sign of the first XI for Sunday?

Ozil was outstanding for Madrid in last season’s Camp Nou Clasico, his pace intimidating the Barca defence, his teasing corner setting up Khedira’s opening goal and his quick release pass from the halfway line setting up Ronaldo’s winner. The German has supplied more than 50 assists at Madrid since his arrival in the summer of 2010 and has carried an almost untold influence on his teammates. However, he has endured a disappointing start to the current campaign and with Modric now on board, his place is considered under threat.

Indeed, the former Tottenham man appears to have moved in front of Ozil in Mourinho’s estimation since making his debut against Granada on September 2. The consideration for the Portuguese remains whether Ozil can meet the demands of being the attacking creative influence in Madrid’s midfield. In 30 Primera starts in 2011-12, he was substituted 21 times, while Modric completed 90 minutes in 34 out of 36 Premier League matches for the North Londoners.

There is an aggression and resistance to Modric’s play, perhaps a legacy of his Premier League experience, that trumps Ozil’s more passive approach when the opposition is in possession. Indeed, Ozil has often been accused of being on the periphery of games when things are not going to plan and twice already this term he has been singled out for criticism by his Coach this season and substituted at half-time, first against Sevilla and then against Deportivo. Mourinho’s public request to the German to ‘improve and reach his normal level’ has been matched by Modric’s increased presence in the starting XI during this same period.

Without a radical change in his tactics, or in his assessment of the creative midfielders at his disposal, there is unlikely to be room for both Modric and Ozil in Mourinho’s line-up at Camp Nou. But, does the Coach give Modric a run from the start when he is still learning Real’s system, or does he go with Ozil, who has a track record of making the difference in this fixture?

With anything less than a win on Sunday likely to hinder Real’s hopes of retaining the League so early into the season, it is arguably the first time this term that choosing correctly between the playmakers could carry a far greater significance.