Guest Post By Karl Matchett
The international break couldn't have come at a worse time for Real Madrid in terms of getting some of their star players fit; no sooner had the likes of Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez-both out injured after exertions with their respective nations last time out-managed to get back on the pitch for their club than it was time to head off around the world again with their national teams.Â
While Bale was rightly excused from friendly duty with Wales, Rodriguez was demanded by Colombia to play a part in their World Cup qualifiers. He helped them to a point in Chile, scoring in the 1-1 draw, but couldn't prevent a defeat at home to Argentina next time out.
Importantly, though, he came through the 90 minutes unscathed-and that's of paramount importance to Real Madrid heading into El Clasico at the weekend.
La Liga couldn't ask for a better fixture to get things going again after the last international break of the calendar year and with just three points separating Real in second from Barcelona in top spot, all eyes will be on the fixture of the season to see which way the title pendulum will swing. It's far from win-or-bust at this stage, but especially playing at home, Real can't really afford defeat to their rivals. They would drop six points behind and still have to go to the Camp Nou in the second half of the season, not an ideal scenario by any means.
Real have swung from a tactically impressive rotation of positions in attack to worryingly reliant on individual inspiration in the space of a few weeks, largely due to enforced changes after injury and unavailability. Cristiano Ronaldo's below-par (for him, at least) strike rate hasn't helped matters and nor has the absence of movement and selfless work rate through the centre, usually provided by Karim Benzema.Â
Rafa Benitez has to decide whether to revert to a 4-4-2 for the match-unlikely, in truth-or keep faith with Bale as a centre-forward and stay in a 4-3-3, with James Rodriguez likely to come in off the right channel starting position in either case.
The Colombian has tremendous game intelligence which can see him move in behind full-backs, cut infield to find space centrally or run into the penalty area unmarked; this off-the-ball movement is key to his ability to score pivotal goals for Madrid, but also for his side to use as an outlet on the counter-attack. It's no secret how Barcelona will play: a 4-3-3, dominant in possession whenever possible and expecting the full-backs to push upfield to overlap the midfield.
James will have his work cut out to track Jordi Alba of course, but when Real Madrid manage to win back the ball with Alba upfield, that's the moment the No. 10's movement comes into play. Picking holes around such a player as Sergio Busquets is no easy task, but Rodriguez is extremely hard to pin down and has the technical ability to evade markers with quick, direct dribbling or a fast exchange of passes with a team mate.
Add in his set piece delivery on occasion and Barcelona's rather less-solid-than-usual defence, especially on the second ball after initial crosses or deliveries are half-cleared, and James will be vital to Madrid's expectations of end product. Don't be surprised to see him on the scoresheet, whatever the final result.
Of course, he can't do it all alone though and Real's entire XI will have to be on their game to thwart last season's treble-winners. On the opposite side to James, Real could really do with having Cristiano Ronaldo find his form, confidence and concentration. Dani Alves has been an obvious weak link in BarÃ§a's back line all season long and, running behind him or dribbling directly at the defence, Ronaldo can exploit the right-back's deficiencies-if his own game is on point.
It's not a must-win game for Real at the Santiago Bernabeu, but even at this stage of the season it might be must-not-lose. The two wide threats in the final third are the best bet for Benitez's side to come away with points on the board, not just in this game but in most they'll play this seasonÂ…if only they can keep James Rodriguez fit, that is.