Real Madrid must attack Barcelona in El Clásico to win La Liga
The word that summed up Real Madrid’s clashes with Barcelona last season was ‘why?’. Why, José Mourinho asked, do we always get a player sent off against the Catalans? Why, the rest of the world wondered, would you set up such an audaciously talented and expensively assembled squad in such a defensive manner?
Real Madrid go into this weekend’s first league El Clásico of the season in a better position than they have been since Pep Guardiola took charge at Barcelona. A three-point lead with a game in hand is a massive advantage in a league traditionally contested by only two teams. However, that lead also raises a dilemma for Real’s traditionally conservative manager.
The league leaders showed what many of us suspected in the season’s curtain raiser, a two-legged El Clásico affair in the Spanish Super Cup. In stark contrast to their destructive attitude in last season’s Champions League semi-finals, Real went for Barca, attacking and pressing them ferociously and were, not for the first time, only outdone by a few pieces of Leo Messi magic over the two games.
Those encounters seemed to have set the template for how Madrid should tackle this Barca side. Yet, with such an advantage Mourinho may be tempted to stick rather than twist. A dangerous temptation.
Real’s greatest strength in their remarkable 14-game winning run has been their ability to tear teams apart, scoring 69 goals in their 21 games in all competitions. By now Cristiano Ronaldo’s goalscoring record is taken for granted, but in Karim Benzema, Gonzalo Higuaín, Ángel Di María and Mesut Özil they have an extraordinary attacking quartet who were hardly given a chance to showcase their ability against Barcelona last season.
The development of Di María in particular has been significant. The Argentine is often maligned for his ludicrous playacting but has improved his work rate and more importantly his awareness this season, a characteristic which has seen him provide the league’s highest number of assists with 11.
This weekend is the optimum time to break Barca’s hegemony of Spanish football. The European champions have struggled away from home this season, winning only two of six games on the road, and even those two were scratchy 1-0 wins at Sporting Gijon and Granada. Guardiola has deliberately prepared their schedule so they’re in peak physical condition for the FIFA Club World Cup later this month in Japan and after their trip to the capital, Barca won’t play again in the league until 8 January.
If Real win on Saturday the league is all but over. Any other result and Barca go into that break knowing they are still alive. And with a bigger squad than at any point in the past three years, they are, in theory, far better prepared for the extra strain of Copa del Rey and Champions League knockout fixtures in the new year. Moreover, when that strain should be at its greatest in April and early May as the Champions League reaches its conclusion, Real face Valencia, Atlético Madrid, Barcelona at the Nou Camp, Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao in a four-week stretch.
Mourinho may have built his reputation on his side’s resilience, but if he is to slay the Barca beast for the second time as Real manager he must for once trust in his flair players’ ability rather than his own tactical mastery.
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