Barca feeling the heat ahead of Clasico

December, 8, 2011
12/08/11
1:47
PM ET

Going into the first Clasico of the season, the panorama is quite different for Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid than it was last year. The Portuguese's team is breaking club records with ease and has just completed a perfect Champions League group stage with six victories and a goal difference of plus-17.

More importantly, it also leads the league by three points over Barcelona for the first time at this stage of the season in the Pep Guardiola era, and has a game in hand on its eternal rival. For the first time under Mourinho, the pressure is on Barcelona.

Here are some issues for both sides ahead of Saturday's clash.

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Cesc Fabregas
David Ramos/Getty ImagesWill Pep Guardiola opt to include Cesc Fabregas in his starting eleven against Real Madrid?

A season-defining match?
Leo Messi thinks so, having said that a good result is imperative ahead of the Club World Cup event in Japan. A loss would potentially leave Barca nine points adrift of Real before the winter break, a chasm in Liga terms and one that would leave the destination of the title very much out of the Catalans' hands. Real is on a record-breaking streak of 15 consecutive wins. Meanwhile, Barca has only won nine of 18 possible points on the road this season.

A beautiful game?
Vilified for Real's negative tactics and his players' bruising approach to last season's Clasicos, Mourinho altered his approach in the two-leg Supercup and what unfolded were two largely sporting and riveting contests -- until the last-minute mayhem that resulted in three red cards. It is probably as well for Real as it is for soccer that a shortage of defenders means Pepe will be required at center back on this occasion.

Let's talk about Cesc, baby
Arsenal fans used to have a decent song starting with this line. Barcelona fans, if they sing at all during Camp Nou matches -- which are more like sitting in a library than even the Emirates -- stick to a generic "Baaaarca" or "insert-name-of-player" and little else. However, they may have to find a ditty for Cesc, who has defied prognostications to become not only Barca's second highest-scoring player this season, but a linchpin of its intricate forward play. Rumors that David Villa has not taken too kindly to the new arrival are probably not entirely inaccurate. It will be a major surprise if Barca's No. 4 isn't shoehorned into the starting 11 on Saturday.

Lass man standing
It was instructive that of the six players Mourinho excused from the team's midweek trip to Amsterdam, Lassana Diarra was among them. Prevented from being sold or going out on loan by the Portuguese manager, in the big games this season the stocky Frenchman has been called into action. Expect a three-man midfield Saturday, with Lass alongside Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira.

The opening goal
Not since October 1988 has Real come from behind to win a Clasico in the Santiago Bernabeu.

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Karim Benzema
John Thys/Getty Images Karim Benzema featured for Real against Ajax on Wednesday, but the French forward should be in Mourinho's starting lineup for Saturday's Clasico with Barcelona.

Three at the back for Barca?
A new feature of Guardiola's team this season has been the experiment of playing with three at the back. An extra man in midfield permits Barca to move the ball around with even more speed and precision than usual. This setup was used in last weekend's 5-0 lashing of Levante, but as displayed against Valencia earlier in the season when Dani Alves pushed up into midfield, Barca's left flank is overly exposed with a three-man defense. It should also be noted that Gerard Pique was unavailable on both these occasions, with Eric Abidal, Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano forming the defensive troika. The Shakira-botherer was punished for incurring a fifth yellow against Rayo to sit out the Levante match by being selected to join the kids for the BATE Borisov dead rubber midweek, but he will likely return to the defense Saturday.

Karim of the crop
"On Saturday, Cristiano, Di Maria and one of the two will play," said Mourinho after the Ajax match on Wednesday. The fact that Gonzalo Higuain played the full 90 minutes and Karim Benzema was substituted after less than an hour shows the France striker has made the starting spot his own.

Cuenca surprise?
In last season's Clasico at the Bernabeu, Guardiola attempted to surprise his counterpart by playing Dani Alves on the right wing, in a ploy that didn't pan out and was rectified with a tactical switch. Using Isaac Cuenca on the right Saturday would be as much of an eyebrow-raiser, but the latest Guardiola prodigy has shown enough youthful verve this season to suggest that he could equally raise hell down Real's left. Alexis Sanchez and Pedro, though, are probably ahead in the pecking order for the right-hand berth this weekend.

Careful in the box
There have been 18 penalties in Clasicos at the Bernabeu down the years. Only one corresponding spot shot, which Andoni Zubizarreta saved from Emilio Butragueno, failed to go in. And how many of the 12-yarders have been awarded to the home side? Fourteen.

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