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Real Madrid v Barcelona: A bumpy ride for Xavi’s Barca?

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Barcelona enter Sunday’s Clasico level at the Santiago Bernabeu on points with Real Madrid top of La Liga and having conceded just one league goal all season.

Eyebrows were raised when the club spent €145m this summer on players, despite well-documented financial difficulties, but on the face of it the numbers would suggest the bet was paying off on the pitch.

Statistics in football sometimes have to be taken with a grain of salt.

Their last six La Liga games, in which they haven’t conceded at all, have been against the likes of Real Valladolid, Cadiz, Elche and Real Mallorca – sides not known for their scoring prowess. goals.

Nor will the stats tell you that on many occasions only goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s stunning form has kept the opposition at bay.

It’s a different story when the bigger boys come to the party, and especially when you find yourself without your first-choice defenders to face them.

This season, Barcelona have already conceded seven goals in four Champions League appearances, losing two, drawing one and winning one.

Wednesday’s thrilling 3-3 draw against Inter Milan, loved by the neutral but hated by Barcelona manager Xavi, likely means they will have to start planning their Europa League campaign very soon.

Inter need only beat a Viktoria Plzen who has conceded 16 goals in four appearances so far to ensure Barcelona do not advance to the Champions League knockout stages for the second consecutive year .

Next up is the Clasico and Real Madrid, who in ‘big boy’ competitions are up there with the biggest of them all.

If Barcelona lose against Real, it will be chaos.

Football Focus: Barcelona’s big bet – what’s going on?

Bad news for Barcelona

The two teams are neck and neck at the top of the table after an unbeaten start to the season that saw them both drop just two points from a possible 24.

Something has to give and the clues as to where it will happen were there for all to see in their recent Champions League matches.

Real Madrid traveled to Warsaw to take on Shakhtar Donetsk and needed a last-minute header from Antonio Rudiger to snatch a point.

Traveling to Poland with nine points already garnered, there may have been a slight element of complacency in their performance, as well as a rotation of the squad.

At Barcelona, ​​Xavi rallied, describing the match as a ‘cup final’ and for the first 45 minutes everything seemed to be going according to plan.

There was pressure up the pitch, lots of crosses, shots from outside the box and the players found themselves between the lines.

Everything was fine, certainly until half-time. What could go wrong?

Well, as it turned out, pretty much everything really. They conceded early in the second half and then the floodgates opened.

From the moment Gerard Pique forgot to look around Inter’s forwards and the first goal was conceded, the game went from a measured and planned approach to box-to-box football. Pique, Eric Garcia and Marcos Alonso were never going to be able to handle this.

The match was played by Barcelona as if there was one minute left. The match has become a lottery and the best you can say is that at least two saves from Ter Stegen towards the end means there are always the slimmest chances for the next matchday.

So what we have now is a Barcelona that can only do what Xavi wants for 45 minutes, a team that is fine until things get tough and then find themselves unable to cope. A team that has two ways of thinking about what to do – Xavi wants control but the players prefer to attack quickly.

Obviously, Xavi is no further than the first stage of this new educational process at the Camp Nou, which is very bad news when you are about to face a Real Madrid team who have obtained graduated with honors years ago and who knows how to raise the levels when it really matters.

Barcelona boss Xavi
Barcelona are close to exiting the Champions League after Wednesday’s draw with Inter Milan

So what are the key elements of this Sunday’s Clasico?

Ter Stegen has helped to blunt the harsh reality of what’s going on right now and without him it’s hard to imagine where the club would be.

No one knows who will be at the other end, with Thibaut Courtois out for three games with a back injury and still unable to train.

Andriy Lunin replaced the Belgian with distinction but can’t quite inspire that winning, difference-making confidence that Courtois does. But then – other than perhaps his opponent on the other end – who could?

Just forget about being a goalkeeper – Courtois is one of the most influential players this season.

What about the situation in defense?

The Champions League has shown us that it is a Barcelona team that does not adapt sufficiently to the counter-attacks of its opponents. When in control they are able to defend as a team, but when they return to box-to-box football they are there for the taking.

Expect Real Madrid to defend high at times but are mostly concerned with waiting for Barcelona to lose possession and counterattack like only they know how to do.

Karim Benzema, Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo, Federico Valverde or whoever plays is a scary prospect for this fragile Barcelona side, as Real Madrid are one of the best in the world in this aspect of the game.

Real Madrid, meanwhile, have Eder Militao in defense, who missed Tuesday’s Champions League game but is expected to be fit for the Clasico. He is one of the best central defenders around.

He’s strong, physical, has fantastic anticipation, is quick, dangerous from set pieces and resolute in defense and, while Barcelona’s missing defenders have cost them dearly, Real Madrid have either David Alaba or Nacho to replace de seamlessly injured Rudiger.

Is Rodrygo the new Benzema?

Rodrygo of Real Madrid
Rodrygo helped Real Madrid beat Liverpool in the Champions League final last season

Rodrygo is good but he’s not at Karim Benzema’s level – not yet, not by a long shot. But at least Real Madrid know they have someone in them who can take on the role of the French striker.

He bonds well with his teammates, can train defenders, can drop deep at times, and can score goals. Against Atletico Madrid just before the international break, he was by far the best player.

He can be trusted to play wide or to identify the places where he will create the most problems for his opponent, sometimes including the central position normally occupied by Benzema.

Sunday’s key may well be in midfield and it’s safe to assume Real manager Carlo Ancelotti isn’t about to repeat the perverse decision he made in last year’s Clasico. when he decided to play Luka Modric as a false nine and ended up on the wrong end of a 4-0 beating.

Ancelotti will know better than anyone that playing with quick transitions basically requires a midfield that holds together when attacked and then moves with the pace.

It is now a Madrid team with a very solid structure and a team where everyone knows what everyone’s role is. They’ve had it for a long time and it’s second nature to them.

Barcelona, ​​on the other hand, do it because that’s what they’ve been asked to do.

Who will be blamed at Barca?

For Barcelona, ​​Sunday’s Clasico could be the next learning curve as they struggle to find their identity. It could be a bumpy ride.

If it turns pear-shaped in the not-too-distant future, the first to be criticized will be the players, especially seasoned veterans such as Pique and Sergio Busquets who aren’t at their best. A lot of people started saying they weren’t ready to play at that level anymore.

Then, depending on what happens on Sunday, the next in line will be the manager who will soon be accused of not getting the most out of a squad that has improved with the help of around 145 million euros this summer.

And then finally, if we continue on this path, the president Joan Laporta will be challenged by many for having sold off parts of the club in order to try to finance this new Barcelona look.

Laporta chose to spend most of the money available now to build a strong team, confident that success on the pitch will bring money and partners, which will help pay salaries and transfer fees in the future, which will bring success, which will bring the best players, etc.

But without getting the results, and maybe even the titles, that will provide the prestige needed to keep bringing in the cash to pay off debts that total around 1 billion euros, the heat will only grow on Laporta.

These are tricky times at Camp Nou.

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