Barcelona Host Real Madrid in El Clasico Without Lionel Messi

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No matter the names, times or years, two words in football mean more than the rest; El Clasico. The iconic rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid will once again be renewed on Sunday. While Barcelona have not been great in recent weeks, Real Madrid have been awful; one win in their last six, with Julen Lopetegui facing the sack if they lose.

For the first time in almost twenty years, El Clasico will go without featuring Andres Iniesta, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. But do not think that it diminishes the pressure of the game on either side. It is certainly crisis time at the Bernabeu with Lopetegui’s time left in the job measured in days. And a loss would shine a very bright light onto Ernesto Valverde and his tactics.

El Clasico Preview

The Build Up

Win or lose, this game will surely focus on Julen Lopetegui. It has been made quite clear to almost all corners of the earth that he only keeps his job with a win. Why, you ask? Well, his side currently sit seventh in the table with a chance to be as low as tenth by kick-off. Their only win since 22nd September is a home win on Tuesday against Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League.

That game midweek did not shine brightly on Real Madrid. If that game was suppose to be a warmup for Sunday than they look cold. They came away 2-1 winners midweek but Plzen had plenty of chances to equalize and their effort at the Bernabeu was applaudable. However, the crowd were still their whistling their players, reminding them it will take a much better effort at the Nou Camp.

Meanwhile, at the aforementioned Camp Nou, Barcelona took on Inter Milan in a game that would most likely determine group supremacy. No Leo Messi as he sat in the stands with his son, but still, Barcelona put on a surprisingly controlled performance. They controlled the ball calmly and carefully, and maybe a bit slowly for some supporters’ liking. But it’s a team tactic that has been building.

The Reason

At the start of the season, with Ousmane Dembele playing up front and Philippe Coutinho in midfield, Barcelona were playing in end-to-end, high-paced games; games without control. Those games can be great to watch but can also lead to tough losses. After three winless league games, Ernesto Valverde decided to replace Dembele with Arthur and boy has that changed.

Arthur Melo is a 22-year-old Brazilian midfielder who, last season, was playing at Gremio, one of the top clubs in Brazil. The diminutive midfielder plays with an elegance and patience when he has the ball, rarely losing possession and usually picking out the best pass. It’s those qualities that have brought out his inevitable comparison to Barcelona legend Xavi Hernandez.

While Arthur is a similar player to Xavi, he is not quite Xavi, yet. The passing ability, the vision and the elegance in midfield are all there. So too is the patience; Xavi was unbelievably patient in midfield and Arthur is similar in that regard. The performance of the team since he has come in shows how valuable he is, likely making a lock to start on Sunday.

The Game

Expect the inclusion of Arthur to have a profound impact on the game. Both teams are going to try and keep as much possession as possible but in both cases that possession is slow. Luckily for Barcelona, Madrid’s possession may actually be slower than theirs. The Madridistas have created just three goals during this poor run while still holding 65% possession during the run.

It will be the type of game that has a large amount of slow build-up, relying on someone’s individual brilliance to create action. That pressure falls to the likes of Philippe Coutinho, Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez or Karim Benzema. But they will not get that opportunity without good play from their midfields.

The winner of this game will be the team whose midfield plays the best and that will be Barcelona. Real Madrid’s midfield of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Casemiro have not played well and look tired after a lot of games over the past few years. And none of them were ever that fast at peak physical condition.

But for Barcelona, Arthur, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic have been playing well recently. They, along with Messi, have been Barcelona’s best players in this three-game winning streak, and there should be more of the same Sunday. There are too many great players on the field for a bad game – even Jose Mourinho couldn’t ruin El Clasico.

The Ramifications

Whether or not Lopetegui gets fired after this game, a loss on Sunday would mean it’s deserved. Real Madrid cannot go an entire month without a win and Lopetegui would have to take the brunt of the backlash.

A win puts Barcelona in the driving seat for the league and it will be a huge boost in confidence for the team. Getting another win against their biggest rival without Lionel Messi would be massive. When you add it to the win against Inter midweek Barcelona would surely have fixed their issues with form.

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