The Argentinean star has been exceptional in the last couple of months
The world of football will stand still in admiration when Barcelona host historical rivals Real Madrid at the Camp Nou on Sunday. While there have been plenty of memorable Clasicos between the two most successful teams in Spanish football over the years, the upcoming clash has every ingredient to make it even more special this time around.
Luis Enrique has lead the Blaugranas to an impressive run since the beginning of 2015, with only one defeat in the last 18 matches in all competitions. it has taken a while, but the team is slowly but surely demonstrating many of the qualities that the Asturian manager regularly showed while captaining the Catalans on the pitch in the early 2000s: A constant desire to excel at every level, the ability to step up when faced with difficult challenges and a non-negotiable focus on dynamism and physicality.
Barcelona have become a much more mature, solid unit since Luis Enrique took charge in the summer of 2014. Unfortunately, the disappointing season under Gerardo Martino had left him with a squad full of players in obvious decline and in need of serious reinforcements. As a result, the €157 million invested in bringing proven professionals such as Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic or Claudio Bravo was an urgent necessity.
After experimenting endlessly with the squad during the first third of the season, fielding countless starting lineups in the process, Luis Enrique finally settled on a preferred eleven which, in the last couple of months, has perfected those all-important mechanisms which make the current formation run like clockwork.
Claudio Bravo between the posts in La Liga, Marc Andre Ter Stegen in the Champions League. A more conservative version of Dani Alves as right-back. The blistering Jordi Alba in the left flank. The ever-improving partnership of Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano at the heart of defence. Sergio Busquets holding behind creative genius Andres Iniesta and the tireless Ivan Rakitic in midfield. Upfront, the best front three in world football: Quadruple Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi, current Golden Boot winner Luis Suarez and the magical Neymar.
Most importantly, the current Barcelona has regained their former hunger for success, that essential burst of energy and fitness which now allows them to speed their attacking game up, making it less predictable. If it has become increasingly difficult for rivals to contain the Catalans’ attacking efforts, it is definitely thanks to their added freshness, enhanced purpose and improved clarity of ideas.
While 21 other world-class players will be chosen to start the game in front of the ferocious 98,000-strong Camp Nou crowd, all eyes will surely be on Messi’s shoulders once again.
The Argentinean star has been exceptional in the last couple of months, to the point that his insanely high standards until that point have been dwarfed in comparison. In his 18 appearances in 2015, Messi has netted 20 goals with a shooting accuracy of 61%, assisted his teammates for 12 goals, created 49 goalscoring chances and completed a mind-blowing 116 dribbles. Best footballer ever? Definitely, without a doubt. Expect the Barcelona forward to extend his legacy by delivering yet another stellar performance against Cristiano Ronaldo and co. on Sunday.
From a collective point of view, the match against Real Madrid will be decided in midfield, with the battle for purposeful passes into space taking priority over prolonged possession. The way in which Barca’s game has become much more direct this season suggests that the team which can make their transitions between attack and defence the faster will ultimately have the edge over their rival.
While it is obviously impossible to predict what the final result may be after the final whistle, recent evidence suggests that Barca should be able to secure the three points in their home stadium. However, underestimating the current European champions would be a costly mistake, especially considering the quality of rivals such as Ronaldo, Gareth Bale or Isco.
The Blaugranas are currently leading La Liga by one point over their historical rivals. Winning the Clasico would give them a welcome boost in terms of morale and self-belief but, with a massive 30 points still to be played for, it would be dangerous to consider the title race over after the game on Sunday.
The Quote: “Games against Madrid are certainly different to any others. They are our eternal rivals and the closest team to us in the table. If we win, it also means they get no points, and there’s also our head-to-head goal difference to bear in mind. There’s a lot to look forward to. El Clasico is an important game but not a decisive one. There are no clear favourites in games like these. These are two top quality teams with a lot at stake. But we do have home advantage and playing in front of our own fans always gives us that extra boost. We won’t fall into the trap of thinking it will be easy. We know the defence will be under serious pressure at times and we hope the fans can focus their excitement on helping us when things like that happen” -- Luis Enrique.