BARCELONA – Barcelona against Real Madrid, El Clasico, will be held in silence this weekend at Camp Nou with fans kept away by the pandemic.
Not only will the great Spanish derby kick off with barely a peep – save the referee’s whistle –, it comes at a time when neither team is in great form. Real Madrid is worse off, having lost two of its previous games to relatively small clubs.
Cadiz, Madrid’s opponents last weekend, only returned to LaLiga this year, while Shakhtar Donetsk, its opponent in Real’s opening game of the Champions League, won 3-2 despite 13 of their first-team players being ruled out with coronavirus.
Barça, meanwhile, lost to Getafe last week but hammered Hungarian team Ferencvaros 5-1 in its Champions League opener.
Saturday’s derby will be Ronald Koeman’s first as a Barcelona’s manager and it offers him a chance to consolidate the roles of rising stars Ansu Fati and Pedri in his bid to rejuvenate the Catalan giants.
As soon as Koeman arrived, he redrew Barcelona’s formation to include a double pivot, a 4-2-3-1 with Lionel Messi at the helm that can morph into 4-2-4 and 4-5-1.
Fresh legs in the form of Pedri, Trincao and Sergiño Dest have injected energy into the team as Barcelona rebuild themselves to turn the chapter on the embarrassing 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League last season.
From that foundation, the team can recover little by little. But the same cannot be said for the board of directors, dogged by calls for no-confidence motions and haunted by Messi’s burofax requesting permission to jump what appeared to be a sinking ship last season.
But Messi, whose current contract expires next summer, has a score to settle in what could be his last home outing against Real Madrid in a Barcelona shirt. He has not scored in his last five clasicos. Saturday will be his 44th derby and marks exactly two years, five months and 18 days since he put one past the team from the capital, something he relishes.
He bagged a hat-trick in his debut clasico 13 years ago and thus began a love story with a derby he has dominated, scoring more goals (26) than any other player.
His last goal against Madrid occurred on matchday 36 of the 2017/18 LaLiga campaign, a game that finished 2-2.
While he has settled on a formation, Koeman still has some questions hanging over his first XI. It remains to be seen whether Jordi Alba, recently returned from injury, will start. If he doesn’t, Dest will likely be put at left-back. Busquets and Frenkie de Jong will likely link up behind an attacking midfield of Griezmann, Coutinho and Ansu, with Messi roaming up front.
For Real Madrid, this clasico will probably offer a moment for reflection. It’s the perfect stage for Zinedine Zidane to dispel any growing doubts about his vision and, indeed, his position after two demoralizing defeats on the trot.
The French head coach has never been beaten in his five visits to Camp Nou. But he is working with a team that made no major signings over the summer and has a growing list of absentees, including Eden Hazard, who’s time so far at the club has been beset by injury
He is also without a right-back, with Dani Carvajal nursing a knee injury.
On a positive note for Zidane, Sergio Ramos, the team’s captain, is back from injury and can play his 45th clasico.
Ramos’ dogged style has become the image of determination at Madrid, which will be looking to him to lift the team up again after a rough patch – something encapsulated by Los Blancos’ stunning league turn around last season after the Spanish lockdown.
Madrid will have Courtois back in goal and will fill the missing right-back slot with Nacho, with Mendy on the left. Zidane will likely put Casemiro and Fede Valverde in midfield, accompanied by Kroos, with Marco Asensio, Vinicius and Karim Benzema leading the forward line.