The first El Clasico fixture of the season is upon us, and, for once, there’s no clear favourite to win.
Multiple points have already been dropped by both sides, and levels of performance have been well short of what’s expected.
After a stunning debut campaign, despite the Champions League debacle against Roma, Ernesto Valverde has struggled to galvanise his troops in 2018/19.
Mindful of the words of senior players regarding burn out, the coach has keenly rotated already in this campaign, but unfortunately, those changes haven’t worked for him by and large.
There’s also been a reticence to make certain substitutions, with Ousmane Dembele’s introduction against Valencia coming way too late on 83 minutes.
He came on much earlier against Sevilla after Lionel Messi’s injury, but the poor standard of his performance at least showed the paying public why the Frenchman has been consistently benched this season.
Both Real and Barca seem to be a victim of their own players’ success too, as the lethargy from another summer without rest, on this occasion because of the World Cup, is clear for all to see.
Messi was the glue that held this entire Blaugrana team together, but without him (after he was ruled out for three weeks with a fractured arm), Barcelona will struggle.
Against Sevilla, after he went off, Barça looked positively ordinary, and are certainly more pedestrian in their play. The ‘before and after’ Messi’s injury against the Andalusians was a perfect illustration of the two different sides of Barca’s coin.
The Argentinian has led by example in his debut season as first captain and brings a decisiveness and unpredictability to Barca’s attack that just isn’t there otherwise.
As with last season, Luis Suarez hasn’t really got going in goal scoring terms yet either. However, the work he’s getting through in each game still places him as one of the most important facets of this side.
By way of example, he didn’t find the net against Tottenham in the Champions League but was significantly involved in three of Barca’s four goals at Wembley.
His movement off of the ball, and appreciation of space and those around him is second to none, and the goals will start to flow again. Making a dent in the scoring charts is really the only thing that’s missing in his game at the moment.
Dembele still presents Valverde with a problem.
After putting his trust in the Frenchman when all around him were telling the coach to cash in during the summer, the coach had been repaid handsomely with some outstanding, man-of-the-match performances from the youngster.
However, in the most recent games, there’s been more of a reliance on midfield control, and the sensational performances of Arthur Melo make it hard for him to be left out at this point.
If Valverde wishes to play the Brazilian in the ‘Xavi role,’ then Dembele appears to be the fall guy because Valverde has pushed Coutinho into the wide left position when the opportunity has arisen.
Despite a great start to this campaign with five wins out of five in all competitions, one win in four in La Liga matches since then indicates a deeper issue that the coach has to get to grips with to avoid further problems.
The Blaugrana do have tougher fixtures ahead, but the win over Sevilla has at least given Valverde some much-needed breathing space.
Strength in depth is key, and Barcelona do certainly have that this season, but things aren’t really clicking at the moment.
With no Messi, the role of Coutinho and/or Dembele is crucial for Barça to win the match and extend their lead over their eternal rivals.
There was enough in the performance against Sevilla for Valverde to work with, but Barça will have to be sharper in their transitions in order to gain the upper hand.
Furthermore, Sergio Busquets’ role in protecting his defence is crucial. The Catalans have looked brittle in a number of games this season, and though Real have also been far from their best, they’ll be primed to take advantage of any gifts from the hosts’ back four.
Suarez just needs to continue as he has for the first part of the season. Disheartening though it may be for a striker not to score goals, his intelligence has been as important to the team to this point.
A win against their rivals is imperative for keeping a boisterous and demanding Camp Nou public on side.
Lose that one, and Valverde’s problems will only be magnified.