Barcelona face Real Madrid without Lionel Messi in La Liga matchday 10

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 06: Karim Benzema (2nd from L) of Real Madrid vies for the ball with Sergio Busquets Burgos (L) of FC Barcelona during the La Liga match between Barcelona and Real Madrid at Camp Nou on May 6, 2018 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Power Sport Images/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 06: Karim Benzema (2nd from L) of Real Madrid vies for the ball with Sergio Busquets Burgos (L) of FC Barcelona during the La Liga match between Barcelona and Real Madrid at Camp Nou on May 6, 2018 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Power Sport Images/Getty Images) /

This weekend sees another instalment of the heated rivalry that dominates Spanish football as well as being popular across the globe.

Much has been made of this being the first Clasico without Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta or Cristiano Ronaldo. They have been three huge figures in this fixture over the past decade due to being key players in their respective teams. Their absence means other players have to step up and take responsibility, Philippe Coutinho and Gareth Bale are two potential candidates for either side.

There is more pressure on Real Madrid because Julen Lopetegui’s tenure has been far from impressive so far as he has structural issues to fix without a proper replacement for Ronaldo. They are currently down in seventh place while Barcelona are in first even though they have had problems this season, but a win for Los Blancos would cut the gap between them down to one point.

The build-up to this game has been worrying for Real because they lost to Levante and only just managed to defeat Viktoria Plzen with both games being at home. In contrast, Barca saw off Sevilla after Messi had given them a two-goal advantage before going off injured early on and then put in a comprehensive team performance to dominate Internazionale in a 2-0 victory.

Camp Nou will be filled to the brim for this huge clash, but home advantage has meant little in recent fixtures between the two. Real’s win at the Santiago Bernabeu in the 2017 Spanish Super Cup is the only time in the last eight fixtures that the home side has won. Barcelona have had much more success at the Bernabeu with 4-0, 3-2 and 3-0 wins in the last three seasons. The last two league Clasicos at Camp Nou have been draws.

Lopetegui has reverted back to a 4-3-3 formation — which was Zinedine Zidane’s preferred choice — in recent games after tinkering with a 4-4-2 diamond earlier in the season. It didn’t work against Levante, but he made an in-game change of moving Lucas Vazquez to right-back at the expense of Alvaro Odriozola, while Dani Carvajal is injured, and stuck with that selection against Plzen. This has helped balance out the attacking capabilities of both flanks due to Marcelo effectively acting as a wide playmaker on the left-wing.

Whether he sticks with that change against such high-quality opposition will be intriguing because Barcelona have the attacking tools to take advantage of Vazquez’s defensive deficiencies. Ernesto Valverde picked Rafinha to replace Messi in the team against Inter, which worked well as he bagged the first goal. Both him and Coutinho acted as ‘false wingers’ and drifted into central attacking areas so the full-backs could push up and provide the width. This set-up allowed them to retain possession effortlessly as they effectively had five midfielders.

Valverde is likely to stick with this over using a bolder option such as bringing in Ousmane Dembele, Malcom or, even, Munir. Therefore, Real are unlikely to win the battle for control of possession and territory, so they could be forced into transitioning quickly. Inadvertently, Barcelona could end up helping their opponents because this style suits them most as shown in the Champions League over the past three seasons. Bale is the ideal player for this style while Marco Asensio would be more suited to this over Isco.

This will be a huge test for Arthur Melo as he is up against Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro who are one of the most well-balanced midfield trios in world football, although he will have the experienced Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic alongside him. He will be key in recycling possession to keep the opposition defensive shape moving and must avoid giving Real any easy turnovers.

The outcome of this match could easily come down to the form of Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos due to the close margins between the two sides. Neither has been anywhere close to their usual level, but Pique has shown promising signs in recent matches. They will both be needed to shore up their respective leaky defences and a poor performance from one of them could cost his side the result.

Defending with possession is Barcelona’s safest option as they have ideal set-up and personnel to accomplish that. Denying Real possession will likely make them take more risks due to Lopetegui’s style depending on having control of the ball. Coutinho needs to be the difference-maker for Barcelona because Valverde is likely to take a cautious approach and avoid playing Dembele unless they go behind. Therefore, he will need to evade the attention of Casemiro who won’t have Messi to worry about.

Next. Rafinha and Philippe Coutinho pivotal in beating Internazionale. dark

With Messi, Barcelona could have won this game easily, but in his absence, it’s likely they will have to settle for a draw in a high-scoring affair as both sides struggle to deal with the opposition attack. Los Blancos have had severe scoring issues in recent matches, however, they will raise their game for this fixture, as they usually do, and it should be enough to secure a result.

Prediction: Barcelona 2-2 Real Madrid