Ghana's No. 1

Real Madrid vs. Barcelona burning questions: Who has the clasico edge in this season's La Liga decider?

Published on: 27 February 2020

Sunday, March 1 is filled with great soccer around Europe and the USA as the Carabao Cup is handed out to either Man City or Aston Villa (11:30 a.m. ET, ESPN+), Everton host Manchester United in the Premier League, and MLS has a pair of must-see matches as MLS Cup champions Seattle Sounders host Chicago Fire (3 p.m. ET, ESPN) and David Beckham's Inter Miami visit Carlos Vela and LAFC (5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). But the biggest game of all is in Spain this weekend as Real Madrid host Barcelona in the second clasico of the season.

- Connelly: Barca are having a much better year than you think
- Hunter: Real overtake Barca as "academy kings"
- Toe Poke: Ramos' red card total not even close to a record

They're the two most successful teams in Spain, they've won eight of the last nine La Liga titles and based on this season so far, one of them is going to win it again in 2019-20. Barca hold a two-point lead over Real with 13 games remaining and a 10-point cushion between them and Atletico Madrid in third. So what are the big questions heading into the game? ESPN writers Graham Hunter (@BumperGraham) and Sid Lowe (@SidLowe) break it down.

Who holds the edge heading into Sunday?

Given that just two or three weeks ago I was sure Madrid would become champions, it might seem slightly contradictory to say that it's Barcelona, by an infinitesimal razor's edge. They aren't yet in dynamic, persuasive form but their playing trajectory, their mood and recent string of results are all gently positive. There's no escaping the barbs aimed recently by Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique at the club's squad planning: it's barer than bare bones right now in terms of first-team resources and, in the long run, I think that may still count heavily in terms of which of the two horses crosses the line first in May. In terms of injuries and suspensions, they don't even have a millimetre of wriggle-room.

Raphael Varane, left, will be expected to keep Messi quiet in Sunday's game. No pressure, then.

Madrid are a strange case. Suddenly, and without much warning, they are not the athletic behemoths they'd become for the middle chunk of the season. With a couple of exceptions -- Vinicius Jr., Ferland Mendy, Thibaut Courtois, Raphael Varane, Federico Valverde -- a cluster of Zidane's men are slower into every challenge, slower to take decisions, more easily brushed off the ball and more prone to making slightly erroneous positional decisions. Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos and Casemiro stand out but Luka Modric and Karim Benzema aren't exempt.

If there's an "edge," it's minor but is in Blaugrana colours. They have a points advantage, Lionel Messi keeps making goals, even when not in supreme form, and he suddenly found a scoring edge last week with four against Eibar. Marc-Andre ter Stegen is imperious, Arthur is back in the groove, Antoine Griezmann's work is absolutely tireless and -- no need to whisper it -- the arrival of Martin Braithwaite is a tonic for them. He's physical, fast, team-oriented and living out his dream.

Barcelona definitely have weaknesses, several of them and Junior Firpo is playing like a competition winner rather than a deserving participant right now. No question that this could easily be a home win for Real because the Clasico brings special things out of big players, but Barcelona approach with a slight edge. -- Graham Hunter

Who knows? Real Madrid legend Jorge Valdano called it a race between two cojos ("cripples"). Neither side entirely convinces right now. Barcelona have taken advantage of a five-point swing in a week to go back to the top, but back then Madrid seemed set to win the league easily. Now it looks different, but no-one would claim Barcelona will win it easily, either.

Neither side is doing anything easily at the moment. The Champions League brought very different results -- Barca's 1-1 away at Napoli is good, Real's 2-1 defeat at home to Manchester City is not -- but similar feelings of vulnerability. That two-point lead does perhaps give Barcelona the advantage of having a less pressing need to win, allowing them to seek control rather than attack. And the memories of last year, when Madrid lost it all in a week, have definitely not gone away. One paper even called it a "psychosis," and Ramos admitted that there is a certain tension and anxiety at the Bernabéu at the moment. Guardiola has been and gone; the last thing you need is Messi turning up next. And yet, it is still Real Madrid at home. -- Sid Lowe

Setien, left, hasn't won as much as Zidane but he's come away with notable wins over Real Madrid in recent games when he was still in charge of other, smaller clubs.Zinedine Zidane vs. Quique Setien: is it a fair fight between managers?

Who said football, never mind life, was supposed to be fair? And do you mean unfair to Zidane?

Setien may be in the biggest job of his life and under a more intense spotlight than ever before at Barcelona, but his record against Zidane-coached teams at the Bernabeu more than bears scrutiny. In fact, Setien has managed to unpick and outwit Los Blancos under Zizou in quite spectacular fashion. Over the past couple of seasons, and with significantly lower-grade resources at previous clubs Las Palmas and Betis, Setien has produced a 3-3 draw, a 1-0 win and a 2-0 win. So if your question was trying to send out a distress flare for Zizou's chances against his 61-year-old rival from Cantabria, then "Bravo!" If you were trying to put Setien and Zizou toe-to-to and portray it as David vs. Goliath, then just stop it. Both men were midfielders, the ball was their friend; in Zidane's cast, the ball was his friend, lover and trusted confidante. No contest there. But that doesn't mean that they are universes apart in terms of coaching wit or personal resources. -- Hunter

Three Champions League titles compared to one Champions League appearance would suggest not. Zidane has won it all, Setien has never won anything. The feeling lingers that he is the Barcelona manager almost by chance, from walking with cows one day to the Camp Nou the next because he was in the right place at the right time, ready to accept a role that others would not. Is Setien the coach because of what he says as much as what he does, not to mention his very public commitment to a Cruyffist philosophy? It doesn't really work like that and nor is it fair to frame it like that, as so many have. Just as it is not fair to assume, as so many have, that Zidane is just a man manager. As if managing these men was that easy, anyway.

Setien has not just turned up at the Camp Nou from nowhere: he has worked towards this and football is a vocation, something about which he thinks deeply. It's legitimate to ask if Zidane could have done with Lugo, Las Palmas and Betis what he did with Madrid. Just as it is legitimate to ask if Setien could do what Zidane did with Madrid. (The answer, as Pep Guardiola has said before, is that no-one could). Nor, either, is he just a purist. He is a competitor too - they both are.

It may or may not be fair, but it will be a fight, that's for sure. And Setién has beaten both these teams before, don't forget. -- Lowe

How can Barcelona's squad handle its increasing injury worries?

I think Gerard Pique plays despite limping off during Tuesday's Champions League game at Napoli. It's far from guaranteed, of course, but he's tough and the injury is minor. If he doesn't start, one boost for Setien is that Samuel Umtiti, albeit gradually, has really picked up match rhythm. Once back from his interminable knee problems, his mind told him to do what his body couldn't deliver -- particularly the conundrum of recognizing danger but being unable to reach it in time. Where Barcelona's injury problems hurt him can be put into three compartments. One: Junior Firpo at left-back looks lost, scared and vulnerable in this team. It's that clear-cut. He's an athlete, he'll occasionally make goals or score them, too -- defensively, and in terms of big-match nerve, he's floundering. Can Barca risk using Nelson Semedo at left-back and convert midfielder Ivan Rakitic to right-back? I would.

Two: resources are very thin, if they are hit with another injury or two either in training before Sunday night or at the Bernabeu, it won't be simple for Setien to conjure adequate solutions. Three: the message from Barcelona's senior players is that given the bad planning at the club, especially offloading Jean-Clair Todibo and Moussa Wague in January, too many of the squad members are being squeezed dry. There will come a time when age, overplaying and tiredness bite, and bite hard. -- Hunter

With very great difficulty. Barcelona have been unlucky -- you can't plan for Ousmane Dembele and Suarez getting long-term injuries -- but some of their problems are self-inflicted. And, in fact, yes, you can plan for those. And you must. But Barcelona and planning seem to not go hand in hand any more. Now it is down to Setien to manage this, seeking solutions and protecting players. Rotations may be necessary, but that's for another day, not the clásico. Expect their strongest possible side at the Bernabéu. If that means forcing players then they will, although the coaching staff at the Camp Nou think that the physical data shows that things are improving. Slowly, but they are. There will be seven days' rest after this, and they will need them. -- Lowe

If you had to pick one player (not Messi!) who could seize the spotlight on Sunday, who would it be and why?

Vinicius. I very much hope Zidane starts him. The kid might have some flaws of cold-blooded decision-making in absolute crucial moments, but they're flaws of experience and not a lack of talent. The individual tuition Zidane has regularly conducted with this 19-year-old Brazilian are yielding dividends. He's far, far shrewder in terms of when he risks, when he passes, how often he looks for an option rather than taking on his direct opponent. But what he undoubtedly possesses is a mixture of searing pace and exceptional ability on the ball.

Although his best position by far is on the left cutting in onto his right foot, which means lining him up against Junior Firpo might be counter-productive, Semedo defends so "narrow" on the other flank that there will be space down Madrid's left and Barcelona's right. What's more, the Bernabeu right now deeply needs a reason to "believe." They adored his effort and impact against Manchester City despite the shock defeat, and he left the pitch to a standing ovation. Let's hope Zidane sees things the same way come team-selection on Sunday. -- Hunter

Griezmann scored to save Barcelona from defeat at Napoli. Can he step up on Sunday against Madrid?

This is the clásico. In theory, it could be anyone. There are so many good players on the pitch, after all. Although, are there really in terms of form? Is anyone really ready to take control of a game like? It does feel a little like there are few players ready to take centre-stage. And yet... look at the squads again.

Benzema, perhaps, who has only scored once in 2020, and who needs a big performance. He has the talent for sure. Vinicius excites, delights and exasperates in equal parts. Released, can he be redeemed? Speaking of redemption, what about Gareth Bale? It sometimes feels like everyone has given up on him. But he likes the big games, or so the assumption goes. Time, perhaps, for him to remind them that he's still around. With a goal, if not necessarily a game. Griezmann is an obvious candidate. A better player than many seem to think, if a worse player than he was before. -- Lowe

Will "emergency striker" Braithwaite be a factor?

No reason why he shouldn't be. I think his chances of starting have increased after last week's impactful debut and how tired Setien's team were after facing Napoli, but it's still a 40 percent shot he makes the XI.

What's important to understand about Braithwaite is that whether you think he's top-class or not, he possesses precisely the mix of positives that Barcelona were missing. Cometh the hour, cometh the handy Danish international.

Braithwaite's His direct running stretches the pitch and can stretch it away from Messi, for whom space is heaven. He can play wide left or second striker, and he's selfless no matter where he plays. He thinks first of the team and first of the right option -- not personal glory. Unlike poor old Griezmann, he's got no burden of expectation on him, either: he's the shot to nothing that can be the shot heard all over the world. His physical impact, his pace, his directness and his talent for assists are things which are scarce in the current Barcelona squad and his fellow players already like his bright football mind plus a mega-positive character.

- Lowe: Don't write Braithwaite off as a novelty signing

It's not a given that he'll find a clasico easy but he's already got a (winning) goal and an assist against Madrid sides coached by Santi Solari and Zidane. Whether you're Merengue or Cule, Braithwaite's is a heck of a story in the making. -- Hunter

Why not? He's bright, strong and fast, able to stretch a defence, prepared to work back too. Last weekend, he showed that he can be useful. And what a story it would be. Not that they'll be that keen to read it in Leganés, and who can blame them? -- Lowe

Real Madrid will be fine without Hazard, who's out for the season... right?

Depends what you mean. Hazard is so special, capable of twisting opponents into such knots that even though he's been missing for much of the season, his absence isn't great for Madrid in a number of ways. Currently, Benzema looks very isolated. It's true he hasn't finished a couple of serviceable opportunities across the past three or four games but if we're honest, it's about the quality of the opportunities and their regularity. When the central core of Real's playing resources dips just a little, playing in different areas of the pitch, creating high quality openings less regularly, Benzema suffers.

Not only is Hazard special, but he's already shown that he and "King Karim" see football similarly. They boast similar technique, similar ideas about timing of runs, a little society down Madrid's left. That's a loss. Can they cope without him? Yes. That's a given. When they were at their most impactful this season, Madrid were still waiting for the garden to feature Eden. However time moves swiftly and remorselessly in elite football: nobody at Madrid will be wasting time lamenting what could have been. -- Hunter

Well, they already were. There's been no evidence yet that he is a key player for Madrid, although he may be one day. They've had to build without him, they've won games since Mallorca without him, going 15 unbeaten league games unbeaten until Levante came to town. Will they miss him? Yeah, probably. Do they lack something up front? Yes, absolutely. Could he have been useful? Could he have been the star? Of course. And the margin is so fine that his contribution might have been decisive. Their second top scorer is Ramos, a centre-back. No one has more than two since the turn of the year. But that's an inescapable reality with which they had to live and that run was built on contributions from the back: goals from Casemiro, Varane, Ramos. They must do so again. -- Lowe

Predictions time!

I think 3-2 Madrid. I think Jovic comes to the party. I think it's two teams eventually playing knock-down, all-in, slug-fest football. All or nothing attitudes. -- Hunter

You're joking, right? It's not worth it, never is. So, let's go for the safe bet, and one that comes off more than you might think. A 2-2 draw. -- Lowe

Source: espn.co.uk

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