Guest Post by Karl Matchett.
Barcelona head into El Clasico in the rare and envious position of being a club facing a win-win situation, as they look to take on Real Madrid in the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday afternoon.
Sitting first in the table by three points, the Catalan side know that at worst, even defeat will still leave them level on points at the top of La Liga-and an away defeat to Real Madrid is hardly cause for embarrassment. Instead, the pressure and the expectation will all be on the home side, as the home side, to do the chasing.
It's a fine starting point for BarÃ§a-but that's not all they'll want it to be. Instead, they'll be looking to maximise the opportunity they have given themselves to extend the lead at the top of La Liga and head off to the Club World Cup in December with a clear gap down to their nearest rivals. To make the most of their good form and lay down a marker with a positive result at the Bernabeu, Barcelona's path is clear: keep providing the service to Neymar and let the Brazilian's form do the talking.
The No. 11 has been in magnificent form, individually on the ball and in terms of his end product for the team over the past six weeks or so. The top scorer in La Liga with 11 goals to date-one every 81 minutes on average-Neymar has rattled off three assists and eight goals in his last five Liga games alone. Add in to that a couple of telling performances in Europe and the terrific link-up play between himself and Luis Suarez, and it's not hard to see why Lionel Messi's enforced absence through injury has not been as costly to the team as it might have been.
Neymar's form (and those he is working in tandem with, of course) is one thing, but the sense of opportunity for Barcelona comes from another individual too: Danilo, the man he's likely to come directly up against.
Real Madrid's right-back has not been in terribly impressive form himself of late; not because he has been playing any differently to usual, but because his role has altered as a result of the overall team performances. When Real dominate and attack with consistency, Danilo is a perfect tactical fit. He overlaps, he powers forward, he provides an outlet and can deliver the ball quickly into the opposition penalty area.Â
Defensively, though, he isn't always up to scratch.
Against Sevilla is inability to mark runners from deep or stop those dribbling at him at pace were exploited in vicious style by Yevhen Konoplyanka, and his attacking prowess was negated by Real being unable to break out of shape and get back on the offensive.
What chances of Barcelona replicating that dominance of possession and territory? Pretty good, would be the likely answer. If they keep hold of the ball as well as they're able to, Neymar's starting position can keep Danilo pinned back in his own half. That's half the job-the other is to keep servicing the left-sided forward early, letting him take the ball down and then drive directly at the defence.
One-on-one, Neymar's outrageous control and change of direction will let him test Danilo to his utmost. The quick exchanges of passes with Andres Iniesta and Suarez on the inside will further test Real's back line, likely with Raphael Varane on that side of the central defence. Expect the Frenchman, talented and capable as he is, to be kept extremely busy clearing up behind his team-mate.
Of course, consistently feeding Neymar the ball ignores a potential change-up in Barcelona's starting front line of late: the return of Messi from injury. In truth, because the Catalan side are leading in the table and away from home in the fixture, there's no need to rush him back if he's not completely ready. Having him on the bench will be enough to begin the mind games and leave Real's defenders worried as to what they might face later on, but if Messi is ready to start, leaving him as the secondary, more explosive but less-frequently sought out attacking outlet, might be the smarter move.
The more often the ball goes to Neymar, the more the defenders' attentions will be drawn to him-and if Messi can exploit a lack of concentration in his direction, be it early on or late on as a sub, he will do.
Neymar and Suarez have together proven more than capable enough of leading the Barcelona attack in style and with substance without Messi, and Luis Enrique shouldn't be looking at changing the emphasis away from that for this fixture, even if the No. 10 does return.
Small details and moments of genius often decide the biggest of fixtures, and they don't come much bigger than El Clasico. And as for moments of genius, nobody on the planet is providing them as frequently and as impressively as Neymar at this moment.