The first cut is the deepest. In the last seven years, the team that has won the first match between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona -- and there has yet to be a draw -- has gone on to win the Spanish league. Barcelona won five of them, Real Madrid two. This season, the cut could prove even deeper still. Exaggerated though it may sound, it's hard to avoid the feeling that Saturday's clásico is decisive. Certainly if it goes Real Madrid's way.
This time, the first game is in Madrid (only two of the last seven have been played at the Santiago Bernabéu) and Jose Mourinho's side effectively have a six-point lead (it leads by three points having played a game less). Victory would take Madrid nine points clear. Although that would not be an unassailable lead, it would be, in Cesc Fabregas's words, "very, very hard" to overcome. In a league where both Madrid and Barcelona drop so few points -- Madrid have surpassed 90 points in the last two seasons and still not won the league -- it's difficult to see anyone relinquishing a lead that size.
If Madrid win the clásico, for Barcelona to still win the league it would need Mourinho's side to lose nine points and be perfect themselves. As Dani Alves put it: "our margin of error has gone." And even if Barcelona concedes no margin, commits no more errors, the title might be gone: Madrid has dropped just five points in 14 games; it would have to drop at least nine in the remaining 23 matches when they dropped just 22 in the whole of last season. Last season, Barcelona dropped just 18 points all year -- and four of those came after clinching the title. In Spain, the smallest slip is a big slip.
It is a big if, of course. Since Jose Mourinho took over at Real Madrid, it has won just one of seven clásicos. But Madrid is better equipped to win this clásico than it has been for three years. It is true that Madrid came into last season's clásico in fine form only to lose 5-0. But Mourinho's side is stronger than ever before; Barcelona, meanwhile, has exhibited doubts way from home: in La Liga it has won twice -- both of them just 1-0 in Granada and Gijón -- drawn twice in the Basque Country and been beaten 1-0 by Getafe.
Even a Barcelona victory, though psychologically huge, would leave Madrid top, while a draw would preserve a six-point lead ... and even that's a bigger lead than Madrid has ever had over Barcelona since Pep Guardiola took over at the Camp Nou. The question, and it is one of many, is: will that be on their minds?
On the face of it, Real Madrid is the side that has to seek a victory -- this is its chance, at home, while in the second game at the Camp Nou a draw would be a good result. But in terms of the overall position in the table, although a win may feel definitive, a draw is actually a useful result for Real Madrid and there is no doubt that it knows that. That offers up a potential psychological advantage and a certain degree of tranquillity: it presents two beneficial ways out and means that Madrid's need to chase a win is less than Barcelona's. For Barcelona, winning the clásico is not just an opportunity, it is an obligation. Another question: does even defeat derail Madrid entirely? Or will it be able to maintain the three-point lead it would still have, focusing on an inescapable reality: that it is miles, miles better than everyone else in Spain?
Guardiola has opted to play three at the back rather than four on a number of occasions this season -- and it has not always convinced. Against Valencia he was forced to switch back again at halftime after a first half in which Javier Mascherano, the right-sided of the three, was constantly exposed. Guardiola has talked about three at the back being a way of getting attacked less and being able to attack more, but it is not as if Barcelona could have been attacked less or attacked more before. The benefits do not (yet) appear to outweigh the risks and there was little wrong with what they were already doing. The idea is, of course, to add bodies to the middle of the pitch and control the game. But the stats show that, while possession has increased, the creation of chances has actually dropped. Away from home, goals have proved surprisingly hard to come by.
Three at the back is also influenced by uncertainty around Gerard Piqué's physical condition and form: Piqué has played just five times as a starter in La Liga and Guardiola's concern is palpable. The defender's deliberate seeking of a yellow card to be clear for the clásico did not please his manager at all.
All of which points at three. But Guardiola himself admitted that playing just three at the back is "very risky" against sides that can get the ball -- and that includes Real Madrid. In fact, against Madrid it would have to be executed to perfection or it may prove suicidal. And given that Barcelona has only repeated a starting XI once this season and altered its back line regularly, that appears harder still to achieve. There is a lack of 'automatisms' about the Barcelona defense still. Three at the back is vulnerable against those that can apply quick transitions, in particular into wide attacking areas. Madrid, launched by Xabi Alonso, and with Angel Di María and Ronaldo on either side, are exactly that side. As Ronald de Boer told El País: "I think Barcelona will dominate [possession], but that is what Madrid want."
Is it, though? One of the things that makes Madrid such an impressive side is the variety in its play. This season Madrid has had more possession than ever before; it is more combinative and it's playing 15 yards further forward. And yet ... Mourinho has played a 4-2-3-1 virtually all season and yet in recent weeks there have been a number of occasions when he has used the 'trivote' -- three theoretically deep lying midfielders to provide presence and muscle in midfield. Madrid has also proven more deadly in swift counterattacks than any other phase of the games. Against a team like Barcelona where possession and combination is both more difficult and, arguably, less decisive, the speed and precision of its break, protected by a midfield three, may prove the greatest weapon.
The fact that Mourinho left Lassana Diarra out of his Champions League squad hints at his inclusion in the clásico -- whether as a right back (Arbeloa is coming off an injury) or as a central midfielder. The 'trivote' approach is not as defensive as Mourinho's detractors would have it -- Sami Khedira becomes liberated to a degree, Lass Diarra attacks more and to dismiss Alonso as a defensive player is to do him a colossal disservice -- but it does appear to be a response to sides against whom Madrid feel the need to compete more fiercely and have greater presence in the middle, playing a little deeper and attacking teams quicker and earlier. It was done, for instance, against Valencia. And it worked. Although this is a different-looking Madrid, last season Mourinho did something similar too, opting for a more combative, defensive approach against Barcelona. The dip in form of Ozil and Kaká's fitness difficulties provide justification: four attacking players, one of them off form, become three with more protection. And when the three include Ronaldo and Di María -- arguably La Liga's best player at the moment -- it remains a frightening proposition for any defense. But would Madrid lose too much control of the ball? And is that, despite appearances to the contrary, actually the greatest risk of all?
Well, not three exactly. But will Guardiola opt for a little more physical presence in the middle, as he has done on occasions before? Will Iniesta be pushed into the attacking trio, to be replaced by Seydou Keita? If Guardiola wants physical presence it seems unlikely to be Javier Mascherano who he calls upon: the Argentine is now almost definitively a defender. But if everyone is fit, which defenders get left out? Eric Abidal and Alves are certainties if it is a four (and Abidal if it is a three), but what of Carles Puyol, Piqué and Mascherano? Pique's inclusion in the Champions League squad alongside a raft of youth teamers and hardly any of the normal first team was intriguing.
And again. Even if it does seem to be the issue that most obsesses the media.
"If I can't hunt with a dog, I will hunt with a cat". Mourinho's remark has become legendary -- analyzed and counter analyzed endlessly. This season, it has come more clearly into focus. Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuaín have different qualities: Benzema is far more technical, a better player in the absence of space, when you need tight passing and close skill; Higuaín applies greater pressure and is swifter on the break. The decision as to how Madrid play -- will it pressure higher as it has done most of this season or lie a littler deeper waiting for Barcelona, employing the speed of counterattacks that sets it apart from any side in the world? -- will go a long way to deciding who Madrid play.
All the talk of Cesc to replace Xavi and Guardiola surprises us by playing him, like Lionel Messi, as a kind of false no.9. By Cesc's own admission it is a new role that to which he has had to become accustomed but it has also liberated him from some of the tactical duties -- not yet assimilated -- that come with playing in the midfield three. He has also combined wonderfully with Messi, scoring seven league goals already. That role also offers Cesc the chance to be closer to Alonso -- not to man mark him exactly but certainly to pressure him. There has been a recent hint of a trend for teams placing a man on Alonso to stymie Madrid's 'salida' -- the ability to come out from deep. The tentative conclusion is that it works, up to a point. Cesc up front also offers an alternative to David Villa -- left on the bench six times this season and looking off the pace and rather disoriented -- plus Alexis Sanchez and Pedro who both come off the back of injuries. Then there's the twenty-year-old Isaac Cuenca, who provides width and crosses unlike anyone else in the side. "The girls may not like him" said Guardiola. "but in his place, on the pitch, he is perfect. He does things so well you crap yourself. He makes everyone around him better."