This season’s El Clásico is perhaps one of the most exciting prospects in many decades. Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid side won “La decima” (a tenth European Cup) against Atlético Madrid in May and have strengthened immensely whilst Barcelona will be managed by La Masia disciple Luis Enrique. With new signings on either side and a desire to take back the Liga title following Atléti’s triumph in May then both teams will be raring to go in the new campaign. Let’s compare the two footballing giants then and see who we fancy to top the league:
This is perhaps a tough one because there is 3 new characters out of the 4 main candidates to start. Real Madrid’s Iker Casillas has kept going and going despite criticism and losing his place to Diego Lopez under José Mourinho. Now though, Lopez has been sold to Milan and so Casillas seems like number 1 again. He is joined by Keylor Navas, Costa Rica’s World Cup star and will have competition for his starting place but for the near future I see captain Casillas continuing.
Barça meanwhile saw the departure of Victor Valdes and the arrivals of Claudio Bravo, Chile’s World Cup keeper and 22 year old German starlet Marc-André ter Stegen. Both will compete for the place in between the sticks and both have supreme talent, no one is quite sure who will start. For me it’s ter Stegen who should and perhaps being given the number 1 jersey indicates he is Enrique’s man. However, because he is so young there is every chance Bravo will feature for the bigger games or should Marc-André begin to slip up. For me, in this department Barça edge it.
Real Madrid began the UEFA Super Cup with Dani Carvajal at right back, Pepe and Ramos as centre halves and Fabio Coentrão at left back. If this is Ancelotti’s starters for the season then it is a pretty formidable line up but with a few vulnerabilities. Carvajal is growing into his role at only 22 and seems destined to keep his place (ahead of Arbeloa), I like him but he is very young and could struggle in the Champions League. Pepe and Ramos have good competition behind them in Raphael Varane who appears to be staying put despite rumours he is heading to the Premier League. I would start Varane ahead of Pepe if it were me, Pepe can be a liability and loves a good red card. Marcello will be right behind Coentrão too, I reckon Marcello will probably start most games but can also be a bit erratic (take Brazil’s World Cup for a few examples).
Barcelona have finally signed a centre-back!! It’s been a long, long time since that was the case but with a potential transfer ban in the offing they have snapped up Thomas Vermaelen and Jérémy Mathieu. Both expensive and both in my opinion not quite up to world class standard. That said they’ll do a job and provide Barça with options other than Pique and Mascherano (who may move back to defensive midfield). Bartra is another young choice in the middle as is right-back Montoya who is behind first choice Dani Alves whilst experienced Adriano is second to Jordi Alba. Both defences for me are weak points for either side, i’ll think Ramos is the best of the lot but Barça have the better depth.
Real Madrid are well packed out in this area: Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira, Luca Modrić, Isco and Illarramendi. We then add to this the phenomenal World Cup winner that is Toni Kroos (signed from Bayern Munich) and Colombian World Cup Golden Boot winner James Rodriguez (signed from AS Monaco). That screams ‘selection headache’ to me! Now of course people will cry that James is more a forward but going on the 4-3-3 Ancelotti chose in the Super Cup final and even in a 4-3-2-1 it appears James will operate as an central attacking midfielder. It will be interesting to see how he makes the step up to his biggest challenge yet with Isco for competition. The deeper players all deserve to start with Toni Kroos a dead cert for me, especially after his World Cup and Super Cup performance. Alongside him Xabi Alonso or Modrić will be favourites whilst Illarramendi is a solid back-up. Sami Khedira will probably be off before the window closes but if not will push for a start too.
Luis Enrique has got some thinking to do with his midfield. Sergio Busquets at CDM is vital to dictating play so will start (possibly with Mascherano fighting him in the role Premier League fans will be familiar with. However the issue becomes who plays ahead of him? I would say he needs to drop Xavi, his legs are beginning to go after an unbelievably successful career but the addition of Ivan Rakitić from Sevilla is surely to replace the legend. The other central player will most probably be Andres Iniesta is a role further back than he is sometimes employed in when put out wide. Sergi Roberto is a La Masia graduate who will be hoping to get some game time but it seems Alex Song will be leaving the club before September. I believe Real Madrid dominate the midfield, quite significantly too!
Well what can I add to the talk surrounding both these sides’ forwards leading up to the new season that hasn’t already been said? It is a competition that will be a delight to watch so let’s have a look at Real. Los Blancos, as stated, started the Super Cup with a 4-3-3 and Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale across the front three, simply incredible! Cristiano Ronaldo currently holds the Ballon d’Or and as we saw at the Super Cup his partnership and understanding with Gareth Bale continues to flourish. They will be involved with massive amounts of assists and goals each as both superstars strive to bring the Liga title to Santiago Bernabéu. Let’s not forget Karim Benzema either who has plenty of goals in him and looked strong at this summer’s World Cup. Between the three of them and with that mighty midfield behind them we can fully expect goals coming from fluid, counter-attacking football. Oh and of course they still have unwanted wide man Ángel Di Maria on their books currently as well as youngster Jesé who is currently injured.
If there is a side in world football that could hope to compete with Real’s front-line it is Barcelona. Luis Suarez, Pedro Rodriguez, Neymar and the one and only Lionel Messi that is one formidable set of forwards! Lionel Messi had a difficult season last year but recovered in time for the World Cup and was brilliant in the group stages even if he did tail off in the later parts of the tournament. Luis Suarez was the best player in the Premier League last season and will be asked to work as a winger/inside forward in the standard Barça set up whilst Neymar will surely only continue to blossom during his second season in La Liga. Of course while that is the first choice trio, Suarez will have to wait till El Clásico on October 26 to make his competitive Barcelona debut. Neymar is struggling too with the back injury that ended his home World Cup in emotional style. Pedro will comfortably deputise and Iniesta may find himself out wide till they’re back at full strength with Rafinha Alcântara not quite up to starting standard yet. The forwards of these two sides are too close to call.
People talked about the end of Spanish dominance when Bayern and Dortmund took the Champions League by storm but all three top Spanish clubs proved that was premature in 2013/14. This season it is clear that Spain will be on top with two sides that are too good to really describe. Who is better? Well by my calculations Barça just edge it at full strength. Problem is, they won’t be at full strength till almost November so a quick start from Real Madrid and the Catalan club could be left trailing in their wake. One thing is for certain, if you haven’t watched the glorious La Liga before then get on it this season, it will be mouthwatering every week!
By Gareth Thomas | August 14th, 2014