Form guide, predicted XIs, players to watch, more

Sunday brings the 247th official edition of The classic, the eternal rivalry between La Liga giants Barcelona and Real Madrid (10:15 a.m. ET; broadcast LIVE on ESPN +). While it’s still too early to look at individual matches in the context of the overall title race – each team has 30 league games after this weekend – it’s never too early for these two to come together. strike a critical blow and establish a little bit of joy in a tough start to the season.

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Will Barcelona get a win that lifts morale at home, or will Real Madrid add even more misfortune to Ronald Koeman & Co., who is still dealing with Lionel Messi’s exit in the offseason? ESPN’s Sam Marsden (Barcelona) and Alex Kirkland (Real Madrid) break down the game from a tactical standpoint, looking at their form, key players, key battles around the pitch and the intangibles that could make the difference. .

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Marsden: Barcelona have won consecutive matches for the first time this season before the Classic, but it didn’t serve to boost morale at Camp Nou. There was apathy around the stadium, which was only half full on Wednesday as Barca followed up a 3-1 win over Valencia, beating Dynamo Kiev 1-0 to register their first Ligue des champions this season. Some supporters even whistled at the players as they closed the game against Kiev.

Tension around the club, which peaked in a six-game win before the international break, eased somewhat following President Joan Laporta’s decision to publicly support coach Ronald Koeman, but the Catalan club no is always only one defeat of the other. crisis.

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Kirkland: The mood around Real Madrid was transformed by their 5-0 Champions League victory at Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday. It was sold out, albeit against poor opposition, and a huge boost in confidence ahead of Sunday’s blockbuster clash. Before that, we had seen a premature euphoria generated by big early wins – beating Celta Vigo 5-2 and Real Mallorca 6-1 – which quickly evaporated with three consecutive games without a win before the international break. The 0-0 draw against Villarreal was acceptable, the 2-1 home loss to Sheriff Tiraspol was absolutely not, and the way the team fell apart 2-1 against the other Barcelona team. , Espanyol, was even more worrying.

It’s been a very mixed bag, with reasons for optimism and others for pessimism, depending on your preferences.


Marsden: Ansu Fati’s return to form in recent weeks has relieved Memphis Depay of the burden of the attack. After a 10-month absence due to a knee injury, he scored on his return from the bench against Levante in September and then again in Valencia’s victory last week, in his first start since last November. He returned to the bench against Kiev, but will be ready for Madrid.

Elsewhere, Sergio Aguero has come on as a substitute in the last two games and the striker could have an impact on the bench this weekend. However, it looks like the game will come too soon for Pedri and Ronald Araujo. Pedri has a thigh problem, while Araujo suffered a hamstring injury while playing for Uruguay last week. Jordi Alba is also a minor doubt after injuring his foot on Wednesday. Martin Braithwaite and Ousmane Dembele are still absent.

Kirkland: This week’s big comeback against Shakhtar was that of Ferland Mendy, who made his first appearance since May. This means Carlo Ancelotti can finally field an experienced and dedicated left-back after alternating between Nacho, David Alaba and youngster Miguel Gutierrez so far this season. Toni Kroos is back from a groin injury, with three games under his belt now. He’s a player you don’t always appreciate when he’s on the squad, but you miss him desperately when he’s away.

The biggest doubt is that of right-back Dani Carvajal, whose recent calf injury is the latest in a long list for him, and who has just returned to full training. Isco and Luka Jovic have come out with short-term problems, while Gareth Bale and Dani Ceballos will not be back until next month. Eden Hazard is also an injury doubt, but isn’t he always?


Marsden: Unless he decides to return to the 3-5-2 formation, which at times has drawn a lot of criticism for its deviation from the club’s philosophy, Koeman will likely choose the same side that beat Valencia 3-1 on Sunday. latest. That would mean Sergi Roberto at right-back, with Sergino Dest continuing in a wide role on the right alongside Ansu and Memphis in attack.

The rest of the team is filling up: Marc-André ter Stegen, Gerard Pique, Eric Garcia, Alba, Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong and Gavi. Barca will look to have the ball and play in Madrid’s half of the pitch, but they will need to protect themselves at the back against Vinicius’ pace at the break.

Kirkland: Ancelotti has been adamant this week. « This team must play [in a] 4-3-3, ”he said on Monday. “There is no other way. He went on to explain that the experiences in 4-4-2 this season had not convinced him: the players were not comfortable, time to change that at this point in the season.

Most of the XI is chosen: Thibaut Courtois in the goals; Alaba and Eder Militao in the center back, with Mendy and Nacho in the back; the classic midfielder of Casemiro, Kroos and Luka Modric; and the two best players of the team this year, Vinicius Junior and Karim Benzema. The only doubt is whether Ancelotti opts for Fede Valverde on the right or Rodrygo Goes. Valverde, the more conservative option, was on the bench against Shakhtar, while Rodrygo impressed and scored.

Ancelotti suggested he played so well that it would be hard to let go. If the coach thinks Barca are there to be beaten, he will choose the Brazilian.


Marsden: Barca’s big threat will come from the left side. Alba was in good shape against Kiev in the middle of the week, scoring the goal, while Ansu, positioned in front of him, touched down after almost a year of absence. Memphis, meanwhile, also tends to drift to the left, where he bonds well with Ansu.

With Dani Carvajal injured, Barca could see weakness to Madrid’s right, especially if Ancelotti go for Rodrygo over Valverde, which would leave Nacho more exposed.

Kirkland: Everything revolves around the midfield. If Casemiro, Kroos and Modric get the better of Busquets, de Jong and Gavi, Madrid win. They will have to protect a potentially fragile Madrid backline – Alaba is exceptional, but Militao still looks capable of a blooper under pressure – while also giving Benzema and Vinicius a platform to play on the other end. The Madrid midfielder is very experienced, but has yet to switch to ‘aging’, let alone ‘past’ territory, as Modric continues to defy the passage of time at 36.

Casemiro relishes games like these – expect him to get stuck in Gavi, looking to elicit a reaction from the fiery youngster – and Kroos awaits a big late performance.


Marsden: All eyes have been on Ansu in recent weeks, but Barca need a big-game performance from Memphis signing in the summer. The Dutch forward got the season off to a good start after arriving on a free transfer from Lyon, but his performance has declined since. He has scored four goals in 11 appearances, but hasn’t scored in open play since August 29, with his last two goals both coming from the penalty spot. However, while his numbers don’t suit a Barca striker, his performances haven’t been that bad. He is a player who does not stop trying and who is able to sublimate in his time.

Barca will be looking to get the ball back to him in the final third and from there he’ll run over the Madrid backline. The first signs suggest that he and Ansu also have a good understanding.

Kirkland: Benzema. It’s true that the Ballon d’Or’s PR campaign has been overwhelming lately, but it’s not just about talk. His case is solid: Benzema is now the best player in La Liga in kilometers, and one of the best in the world. He has scored as many league goals this season as Barca’s entire front line (Memphis, Ansu, De Jong, Aguero and Braithwaite combined), and he’s also LaLiga’s top passer. He is a leader and the hub around which the Madrid attack revolves. He’s capable of scoring all kinds of goals, with more variety than ever in his game.

With a peak at 33, a player who once seemed to shy away from the spotlight now seems to be enjoying it.


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Karim Benzema explains why he thinks El Clasico is the best game in club football.

Marsden: If Koeman sticks to a team similar to the one selected in the last two games, the element of surprise could be provided by Dest. He has pace, tips and confidence and will at the very least give Mendy something to think about. The right-back may be his long-term job, but he currently provides balance on the wing for Barca, who just need him to find a final product. He missed two chances against Kiev but, as fans of the United States Men’s National Team know, he’s more than capable of delivering when it matters.

Kirkland: Vinicius. It’s no secret weapon – his transformation this season has got everyone talking – but he’s absolutely a wild card. You don’t know what he will do next; he does not know what he will do next. But the aspect of his game that made him a fun figure in the past, the extraordinarily inconsistent finish, has been dramatically improved.

Tuesday’s double at Shakhtar was a good example. His second goal put him in exactly the kind of situation he had previously frustrated, but this time a slalom run through the defense was followed by a sure-fire finish, rather than a missed shot. The next step will be to deliver regularly over the course of a season.


Marsden: Neither team are as good as they were five years ago, but Madrid have the advantage on this point Classic. Not only have Barca struggled this season, but they haven’t beaten Madrid or Atletico Madrid in La Liga since Koeman took the lead. Barça 1-2 Madrid.

Kirkland: The classic is the big game that rarely disappoints, with just two 0-0 draws this century. There should be goals in it at both ends. I will go for an entertaining 2-2.

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