Real willing and able to fire in Barcelona

Posted by Rob Train

Saturday's first Clasico of the season will be billed as the usual clash of Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in their eternal struggle for the big individual awards. Taking second billing will be Gareth Bale and Neymar, the new kids on the block but without the underwear adverts (apparently Ronaldo has that sewn up as well).

But this Clasico -- more so perhaps than even when Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho were at each other's throats (or eyes, in the case of Tito Vilanova, who will receive a colourful gesture at Camp Nou) -- is about the two managers. Neither Real or Barca's incumbent whiteboard-scribbler has yet experienced a Real Madrid-Barcelona contest, and both will be keenly interested in how the other's side square up.

Gerardo Martino spoke of "tweaking" what he had inherited when he was presented at Camp Nou. A relative unknown in Europe but a coach schooled in the finer arts of the South American game, he was at least a familiar face to fans of the national side after his Paraguay team came extremely close to derailing Spain's eventual 2010 World Cup triumph in the quarterfinals. Tactically flexible, he was a disciple of attack-minded former Athletic coach Marcelo Bielsa during his playing days at Newell's Old Boys and he was never going to ask the architects of tiki-taka to sit back.

-ESPN FC Clasico video analysis:
Lowe | Rest Bale? | Predictions

- More Clasico video:
Martino: No clear favorite | Bale on fitness

What he has tried to instill in his side is the idea that a goal does not have to be preceded by 87 pinpoint passes; route one has its place, even at Camp Nou. The 7-0 aggregate hammering Barca suffered at the hands of Bayern Munich in last season's Champions League semifinals had already suggested that the "Plan B" mooted by Guardiola during his tenure was in need of dusting off. The Bavarian side is hardly touchy-feely with the ball, after all. Hands were wrung and teeth were gnashed in Catalonia when Rayo won the moral victory of enjoying more possession than its opponent, which the stattos were quick to point out had not occurred since Real beat them in a 2008 Clasico. The fact that Rayo still shipped four without reply at home was lost amid the self-flagellation.

Since his arrival in Madrid, Ancelotti has been working along completely opposite lines. Jose Mourinho's legacy was a brutally efficient counterattacking team that struggled to hold on to the ball and control the pace of games. Ancelotti's Serie A career took in a different panorama, from the evolution of Catenaccio in the 1970s to the lethargic pace of the Italian game in the 1980s and 90s. At Madrid, he has tried to encourage his players to break when a break is on, but also to cover more efficiently and to slow things down when required.

This was largely achieved against Ancelotti's former side Juventus on Wednesday. Instead of chasing the game when 2-1 and a man up, Real instead aimed to keep possession. As Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger lamented after his team lost to a late Borussia Dortmund goal this week: "We lost the game because we maybe wanted so much to win it. We forgot that if you cannot win it, don't lose it." Real, although a goal to the good, made no such mistakes.

To a certain extent, Martino and Ancelotti are trying to impose the finer qualities of the eternal rival onto their own sides. Neither has succeeded fully yet, but the signs point to a very open and balanced Clasico indeed.

On the field, the focus will be on the starting line-ups that file out of the tunnel on Saturday. Apparently Karim Benzema is to be dropped, but not for Alvaro Morata. Gareth Bale is expected to start, but where? Ancelotti is quoted in AS as saying the Welshman is happy playing on the right, "and when he plays, that is where he will play." Could Angel di Maria, alongside Ronaldo -- Real's most in-form player -- then be shifted to the left, with the Portuguese in the central role he is gliding into more and more frequently? That would certainly give Barcelona's backline something to think about.

Gerard Pique is a doubt and Carles Puyol, who will be in the squad at least, returned only last week from a seven-month layoff. That leaves a potential centre-back pairing of Javier Mascherano, who admitted he makes too many mistakes in the position after a gaffe in Wednesday's 1-1 draw with Milan, and Marc Bartra, who has made a total of 29 appearances for the first team in five seasons. Adriano can tuck into central defence but with Jordi Alba injured that would leave no recognised left-back. Alex Song can do a job in the middle of the last line of resistance, but that is hardly a happy prospect for Cules considering the firepower Real can assemble.

Ancelotti has the opposite problem. Too many of his players are now available for necessity to govern the luxury of choice, and options abound: Xabi Alonso is back in full training; Bale is finally ready to be unleashed; Isco and Luka Modric are vying for the right to remain in the first XI when Alonso returns alongside Sami Khedira; Alvaro Morata is improving by the game; and Dani Carvajal has been a constant threat to Alvaro Arbeloa since returning from the Bundesliga.

It's a headache, but one that Ancelotti should welcome. All the parts are finally coming together. All he has to do is figure out where to put them. With Real now just three points off the Liga pace, Saturday would be a good time for everything to click.


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