Key Clasico battles in every area

Barcelona go into the season’s first Clasico at Santiago Bernabeu this Saturday as slight favourites. They lead Real Madrid by three points at the top of La Liga and a Barca win would see that margin doubled, but form and the Clasico do not always coincide.

Debate ahead of the clash has inevitably focused on whether Lionel Messi is likely to return to action for the Catalans after a lengthy lay-off. At the same time, Madrid are hoping Karim Benzema is sufficiently recovered from injury to feature at the Bernabeu.

Messi has not played since the end of September, when he suffered a knee injury against Las Palmas at Camp Nou, but has been training with Barcelona’s B team. Reports in the Spanish Press have suggested that Coach Luis Enrique could name the Argentine on the bench, or even hand him a start.

Barcelona have barely missed their talisman, such is their current good form. They had a resounding 3-0 win over Villarreal prior to the international break, thanks once again to Luis Suarez and Neymar, who have both been on fire. The pair have excelled, scoring all of Barca’s 17 goals in La Liga during Messi’s absence.

Real Madrid’s defence has been solid under Rafa Benitez, conceding just seven times in 11 games in La Liga, with three of those coming in their last outing, a defeat at Sevilla. Benitez could have both Marcelo and Sergio Ramos available for the Clasico after both were injured against Paris Saint-Germain and Sevilla respectively.

Madrid’s backline, breached just once at home, must continue to be robust in the face of Barca’s potent and in-form attack but, like his Barcelona counterpart, Benitez will be well aware of the influence the midfield battle will have on the outcome of the game.

Benitez has plenty of competition in his squad and could well opt to include Luca Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro in the central positions. That would mean no room for Isco, who has again struggled to hold down a regular place in the Madrid starting line-up.

The Madrid boss will be aware of the strengths in Barca’s midfield and will be working hard to arrive at the best solution with which to combat them. However, Enrique also has choices to make regarding his central preferences, especially in the likely continued absence of playmaker Ivan Rakitic, who ruptured a calf muscle against BATE Borisov earlier this month.

The effect of the Croatian’s absence will be lessened if Andres Iniesta is fit to start, but even if he is without either man, Enrique knows that Sergio Busquets is in fine form. Veteran of 380 appearances for the Blaugrana, Busquets has shown a more attacking side to his game this season, playing more direct passes through to the attack as well as remaining master of the one-touch game.

Gareth Bale returned against Sevilla to play alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, but Benitez knows the relationship between his two superstars is a volatile one. Madrid’s attack does have goals in it, and could be bolstered by Benzema’s comeback, but Ronaldo has only a conservative eight to his name while the Welshman has scored just twice to date.

Barcelona’s defence, meanwhile, is often their Achilles heel, but Enrique has options here too.  He may, for instance, look to find a place at right-back for Sergi Roberto, one of Barca’s currently in-form players, at the expense of Dani Alves. The experienced Brazilian’s form has been indifferent this season, but he will be battling for inclusion in a game where motivation should never be an issue.

A win for Barca will leave many believing the title is already destined for Catalonia once again and heap further pressure on Benitez. Victory for Los Blancos will restore parity – at least for the time being.