Friday, 25 October 2013

Preview of The Weekend's Two Table Top Clashes

Its a key weekend in both the Premier League and La Liga as the probable top two in both divisions come the end of the season clash in both leagues. Arsenal and Atletico fans may disagree, but the fact is Chelsea and Man City are the bookies favourites for the Premier League title right now. Barcelona and Real Madrid will always carry that tag in Spain.

Barcelona vs Real Madrid

Saturday, 5pm, Camp Nou.

The biggest club game in the world. Absolutely no one can dispute that, Barcelona and Real Madrid. The Mourinho/Guardiola sub-plot is history but Ronaldo/Messi is alive and well, joined now potentially by Martino/Ancelotti, Pique/Arbeloa who had a very public spat on Twitter recently, and possibly Neymar/Bale in the battle of the summers big signings. 

The game the world stops to watch.

A week ago Barcelona would have been looking at this game as the chance to knock Madrid out of title contention and put the league to bed very early on. They had a 100% record going into last week's away tie with Osasuna. However they slipped up, failing to score for the first time in 64 league games, leaving frustrated with a 0-0 draw. Still a win would put them six points clear of Real and, considering how rare it is for either of these sides to drop points, that is a huge margin.

Gerardo Martino faces one selection dilemma at centre back. Gerard Pique has picked up a knock on Tuesday against AC Milan and is now doubtful. With Javier Mascherano still absent, Carlos Puyol may be called on again at centre back. Puyol is approaching his 36th birthday and his appearance in the match at Osasuna last week was his first for seven months. Regardless, Martino is unlikely to have a fully fit centre back to partner Marc Bartra. 

In midfield, I think Xavi Hernandez, who's played two games already this week, will sit this one out and Cesc Fabregas will drop back into the midfield. Fabregas had been occupying Messi's role in his absence but the Argentine started against Milan on Tuesday and will do so again on Saturday evening, looking for the goal that will take him above Alfredo di Stefano in the all-time Classico goal charts. It will be a first Classico appearance for Neymar on the left wing too.

Carlo Ancelotti left Isco out of the side for the home game against Juventus this week. Up until now his formation had been a fairly regular 4-2-3-1 formation. On Wednesday he opted for Illarramendi instead of Isco. Illarramendi is a much more defensive minded player and he formed a three man centre midfield along with Modric and the criminally under-rated Khedira. I think he'll go with this option again in an attempt to counter Barcleona's dominant midfield and strangle the life out of the game.

Elsewhere, Madrid only have Xabi Alonso as a long term absentee. There is unlikely to be a place among the starters for Gareth Bale, unless Ancelotti is forced to bow to pressure from upstairs to field the world-record signing in such a big game (may well be the case). With Di Maria playing so well, such a scenario would be very harsh on him. Iker Casillas, who sadly is only selected for Champions League games now, will likely make way for Diego Lopez in goal.

Likely line-ups: Barca (4-3-3) vs Madrid (4-3-2-1)
Expect Busquets to stay deep and do a defensive job on Ronaldo. Dani Alves likes to venture forward and Barca won't want to risk being caught out on their right side. Similarly, Illarramendi may have the job of following Messi for the evening, particularly when Barcelona are in possession.

It's one team in reasonably good form against another in fairly bad form by their standards. Madrid have already lost to Atletico at home this season and another defeat here will leave them with a huge mountain to climb in the title race. And that is more than likely what they will have to face.

Verdict: Barcelona win, fairly comfortable. 3-1.

Chelsea vs Man City

Sunday, 4pm, Stamford Bridge.

Far more difficult to predict than El Classico, 'El Cashico' pits two teams, who've both had very up and down seasons so far, also against each other for the first time under their new managers. Interestingly both of them managed in Spain last year and the pair have a bit of history, most notably Mourinho calling Pellegrini a 'loser' for failing to achieve anything during his sole season in charge at Real Madrid and claiming Malaga, where Pellegrini most recently managed was a step down that he would never take himself.

Rivalry renewed on Super Sunday
These two are currently 2nd and 4th in the league table having both had very up and down starts to the season. Chelsea haven't been playing well but still winning. City have been playing very well recently, but managed to lose two games already and only recently got their first away win. It isn't really a crucial game in terms of the title race just yet as a lot more points will be dropped in the Premier League than La Liga, but neither manager will want to lose and this could contribute to a bit of a non-event.

Ashley Cole's return means Mourinho will effectively have a full strength squad to pick from. Up front and on the right wing are the only two positions up for serious debate. Samuel Eto'o got off the mark for Chelsea last week against Cardiff but Fernando Torres went one better and scored two in Gelsenkirchen in midweek as Chelsea notched up an impressive 3-0 win away to Schalke. I think he played Torres on Tuesday with Eto'o already chosen as a started for Sunday.

On the right Mourinho has a choice between Mata, Willian and Schurrle as an attacking right winger. Alternatively he could bring Mikel into the side and move Ramires to the right side in what would be a very defensive move but one that can't be ruled out. Most likely option is Willian who sat out the mid-week game and has impressed in his last two league games.

Equally, City have two spots in particular up for grabs. The two full-back spots. Pellegrini basically has two options. Richards and Clichy or Zabaleta and Kolarov. The first being the safe defensive option. The later being the attacking option. As a neutral, personally, I hope its Zabaleta and Kolarov marauding down the flanks on Sunday afternoon. However given the absence of captain Vincent Kompany, Pellegrini might feel his side will require more defensive minded full backs in what is a must-not-lose game rather than a must-win. I hope he goes with the attacking pair.

I think the rest of the team basically picks itself at this stage. Yaya and Fernandinho in the centre with the Brazilian sitting deep while his partner rampages forward. Jesus Navas on the right wing and David Silva in a left sided attacking midfielder role. Aguero playing just off Negredo up front.

Chelsea (4-2-3-1) vs City (4-2-2-2)
Last week against West Ham, City played a very narrow game Aguero and Silva were key in them getting the win This week they will need extra fire-power to beat a side like Chelsea and they should look to exploit them down the wings with their full backs the same way they did to United in the derby. Chelsea will be glad Ashley Cole is back and their biggest chance of keeping City out will be the aerial ability of Terry and Cahill at the back. Negredo and Aguero will prove a handful. Chelsea will look to use the counter attack and for that reason I don't expect Mata to start.

As I said before, it's must-not-lose for both sides and games like these often fizzle out into boring affairs. 

Verdict: Depends a lot on what the managers want from the game, 0-0 draw is probably the most likely result.

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