The big concern for Barcelona is over the fitness of Sergio Busquets, who missed Wednesday’s Champions league win over Manchester City with an ankle injury. He could return but is rated extremely doubtful, meaning Javier Mascherano is likely to continue in midfield with Jeremy Mathieu slotting in alongside Gerard Pique in the centre of defence.
James Rodriguez is Real Madrid’s only significant absentee. He posted a photograph of himself taking a free-kick on Instagram earlier this week suggesting he is nearing fitness after a foot injury, but he’s not expected to be back in time for Sunday. Most important, perhaps, is the return of Luka Modric to full fitness.
Since the defeat to Real Sociedad at the beginning of January, when Lionel Messi was left on the bench precipitating a week of hand-wringing, Barca – and Messi – have been in superb from, winning nine of 10 league games and dismissing City in some style in the Champions League.
Real Madrid have stuttered of late, losing to Athletic and Atletico and drawing against Villarreal in their last six games. The slip-up at home against Schalke in the Champions League ended up not costing them, but it did hint at their general lack of rhythm.
Barca were well-beaten 3-1 by Real Madrid when the sides met at the Bernabeu in October, a game won down the Madrid left as Marcelo and Isco exposed the decreasing mobility of Xavi, who surely won’t play on Sunday.
Gareth Bale wasn’t available for the clasico in October, and Carlo Ancelotti set up in a 4-4-2, with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric at the back of midfield and James and Isco on the flanks. With Bale, the shape is more of a 4-3-3, with the Welshman cutting in from the right, Cristiano Ronaldo on the left and Karim Benzema through the middle – the so-called BBC.
With both wide players looking to cut in, the formation can lead to congestion in the middle of the pitch, and there is a need for the full-backs to get forward to offer width. To an extent the issue of having too much of a good thing, and with Ronaldo seemingly frustrated with his team-mates in general and Bale in particular, Madrid have struggled for rhythm of late. Given how much the club president, Florentino Perez, has invested in Bale, emotionally as well as financially, though, it seems probable he will keep his place.
MESSI, NEYMAR AND THE MADRID FULL-BACKS
Until recently, Barcelona’s front three had also been the source of consternation. With Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, did they have too much of a good thing as well? But the three have fund a way of playing together, with Messi seemingly reconciled to attacking from wide even if Suarez hasn’t quite rediscovered the sharpness in front of goal that made him so deadly in his final season at Liverpool.
The risk, though, is that neither Messi nor Neymar are particularly good at tracking their full-backs, which means there may be opportunities for Marcelo, so effective in October, and Daniel Carvajal to push forwards (although it comes with the risk of leaving Messi and Neymar free). It’s vital Marcelo, in particular, can make forward surges to cover the flank when Ronaldo drifts infield, making his battle with Messi arguably the most important individual duel.
With Xavi on the wane and Cesc Fabregas sold, there was an urgent need for Barcelona to find a new midfielder. Rakitic may not be able to weave the sort of passing tapestries of which Xavi was capable, but he is technically accomplished and brings a sense of pace and dynamism that Barca have lacked of late.
Certainly he should be better equipped to thwart Marcelo’s surges than Xavi was in the game at the Bernabeu and, as he showed against City, his early days as a left-winger have made him adept at late runs
Given recent form, it’s understandable that Barcelona are such strong favourites, but there seems little value in them at 1.68 to win.
Real Madrid, for all their recent problems, are probably a little long at 4.50 are probably a little long and that makes them +0.75 at 1.96 tempting. But such is Barca’s form that it probably makes more sense to go the other way and back them -0.75 at 1.84.
Read Jonathan Wilson's Liverpool-Man Utd Preview