The First Clasico of the 2014-2015 season will be played in the Santiago Bernabeu, as Real Madrid, without Gareth Bale but with the Cristiano Ronaldo scoring machine will be hosting Barcelona, as Luis Suarez will play for the first time since the biting incident, possibly making the Lionel Messi – Neymar combination even more unstoppable.
One thing helping Barcelona out heading into this match is knowing they can afford to lose and still remain on top of the league. With 22 points and still no goals conceded, this has been another marvelous start for Barca, even though their most expensive signing over the summer, Luis Suarez, hasn’t been able to play, until now. They’ve scored 22 goals and Claudio Bravo at goal, with a changing defensive makeup in front of him, has yet to concede a single one.
Real Madrid have lost twice in consecutive weeks earlier in the season: Real Sociedad, Atletico Madrid. They come to this match from third, one point behind Sevilla and four behind Barcelona. But their form is scorching in all competitions. Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 15 league goals in 7 matches, half of his team’s frightening production. They’re coming off a 3-0 away from home at Liverpool without playing all that well. Even though they’re not leading the league, it’s hard to think of them as anything but quite frightening at this point.
Will Suarez start? Early reports indicate that he will. It’ll be interesting to see how that changes the dynamics in the Barcelona front three. Neymar has been almost like a real striker this season, drifting a bit to the left, but always playing in front of Messi. Pedro, Mounir El Haddadi and Sandro Ramirez have all been playing the more classic winger position. Suarez can do that, but he is so versatile it allows Barcelona to switch between him and Neymar or even Messi, although Messi is at his best so far this year when playing in a slightly retreated role.
The defense situation might be more interesting. Will Gerard Pique start next to Jeremy Mathieu? Or will it be Javier Mascherano? Both options aren’t ideal, but Pique is in the poorer form and Mascherano, despite not being and never will be a centre back, has turned in better performances this season. There is always Marc Bartra, the quicker of the trio, but I’m not quite sure he’s trusted to start in such a match. Pique might get the nod due to his height, and Real Madrid’s ability in the air.
Without Gareth Bale, this means Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Isco and James Rodriguez will be the front four while Luka Modric and Toni Kroos are playing behind them in the midfield. Isco and Rodriguez will be dropping back a lot in an attempt to create more balance in the midfield, although this Barcelona team isn’t so insistent on dominating possession above all else. Ivan Rakitic is a bit more pragmatic than Xavi, and he’ll likely get the start over the aging Spanish legend.
One issue for Real Madrid has been handling set pieces, but that’s not Barcelona’s strong suit anyway. Without Bale and with injuries to Jese, Sergio Ramos and Fabio Coentrao, their options off the bench are limited, which means Carlo Ancelotti needs his first eleven to avoid any trouble. Early goal and typical blitzes are what they’ll be striving for, because his ability to make changes to try and influence the match is limited.