This year's El Clasico looks like it's set up to be one of the most exciting in years. On the one side, Real Madrid are top of the league with a three point cushion and a game in hand. They're through to the Champions League semis, and everything looks gravy right now for the Merengues. On the other is a Barcelona squad whose confidence is at an all-time low, coming off a two-legged defeat against Juventus in Champions League where they couldn't even manage a single goal. They've had their issues in midfield and defense all season, Luis Enrique is a lame duck on his way out, and even the normally super-reliable Leo Messi hasn't looked like himself recently.
This is El Clasico though, and even though it's a cliche, you really can just about toss the form sheets out the window when it comes to these two coming head to head. Plus, while Real Madrid seem like the better team, Barcelona can jump ahead of them for the top spot in La Liga with a win. Yeah, this one is huge.
What are the keys for this one?
Luis Enrique's decisions
Even though he's off at the end of the season, Lucho's under a lot of pressure right now. Despite his stellar record on paper, Barcelona fans aren't happy with his tactical nous and personnel decisions, and they're definitely not happy with the results his stewardship has brought this season. Barcelona's struggled uncharacteristically this year, and Enrique's attempts to solve their problems (especially in midfield) just haven't come off. Will he go with a back three or a back four against Madrid? Who makes up his midfield? How can he get Messi firing again? That's what he's up against, and the decisions he makes ahead of -- and during -- El Clasico will have a huge impact on proceedings.
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Ronaldo and Marcelo overload
One of Enrique's biggest issues is how to handle the overload of Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo on the right side of his defense. Barcelona have struggled in that area all season, and the one answer they had to the equation went up in flames when Aleix Vidal picked up an injury a few months ago. Marcelo's the most skillful defender in the world and a nightmare going forward, and he's got the goalscoring machine that is Ronaldo right ahead of him. They've been fantastic together all season, and if there isn't a specific plan to mitigate their damage, they will cause damage.
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Who steps in for Neymar?
Whereas many of Barcelona's players just haven't looked like themselves this season, Neymar's been chugging along, quietly inserting his name for consideration in between Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi as the world's best. Since he lead Brazil to Olympic gold, he's been enveloped in fire flame emojis, and he's carried Barcelona more than once this season. He was absolutely devastated after the Juventus loss, and it's because he gave every single thing he had to get his team back in the tie, after successfully doing it against Paris Saint-Germain the round before.
The problem is, he's suspended for this one. Someone's got to step up, and it's a massive responsibility to fill his tiny boots. Between Arda Turan, Paco Alcacer, Denis Suarez, or even Andre Gomes, someone will have to do a job.
Sergio Ramos on both sides
Sergio Ramos has been one of Madrid's most important figures for years now, and it's continued into this season. He got another late (own) goal against Bayern Munich in Champions League, but the ignominy of it didn't matter in the grand scheme of things. His menacing presence in defense, and constant threat from set pieces does though. He'll have his hands full with Luis Suarez all match, and you just know he'll be looking to celebrate yet another goal against Barça.
The Messi Factor
Leo Messi was just about as invisible as Leo Messi can be over the two legs against Juventus, and he just hasn't quite looked like himself lately. Are his legs heavy? Are Enrique's tactics weighing him down? Is he *gasp* getting old? Or is he just in a bad run of form like a normal human? No one knows, but none of that will matter if Messi puts in a Messi performance at the Bernabeu. There's no Neymar to steal the spotlight or pick up the slack this time, although one Luis Suarez is a pretty decent player and they'll be looking to feed off each other. Barcelona need a vintage performance from their No. 10, and the whole world is expecting it.
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