BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Barcelona coach Xavi Hernández is keeping his cards close to his chest before the first “clasico” of the season.
The defending champions have been playing without leading scorer Robert Lewandowksi and regular starters Frenkie de Jong, Pedri González and Jules Koundé for the past month because of injuries. They all returned to training Friday, a day before Madrid arrives with a one-point lead in the Spanish league standings.
Xavi, however, would not say if any of them will be ready to play, much less start, for one of the most watched matches in the world.
“I will play my best players, those that are 100% ready,” the Barcelona coach said. “We cannot make a mistake and play someone who is not 100%. They all want to play, but my staff won’t take any risks.”
The difference is between playing with a world-class scorer in Lewandowski, who despite missing the last three games for his club leads the team with six goals, and asking forwards Ferran Torres or João Félix to play at striker. The two have been playing well in place of the Poland star with eight goals between them, but neither can be considered a clinical finisher.
Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said he wasn’t worried who played for Barcelona as long as Jude Bellingham was ready to go. Bellingham had given his coach a scare at the end of a win at Braga in the Champions League this week when he experienced muscle pain in a leg. But Ancelotti said Friday he was good to go.
“For us, the most important thing is that Bellingham plays, and that I pick the best possible lineup,” the Italian coach said.
Regardless of who plays for the host team, Xavi has a huge task in finding a way to stop Bellingham and Vinícius Júnior.
While Vinícius’ speed and dribbling skills have for several seasons been the main headache for Madrid’s rivals, Bellingham has transformed into a top scorer since his arrival in the offseason.
In past “clasicos,” Xavi has used central defender Ronald Araújo as a stopper on the right flank of his backline to deal with Vinícius. If he repeats that formula, then the more attack-minded João Cancelo could move into midfield, or be kept as a option off the bench.
“We have Cancelo, whose natural position is right back, but he can play on the left or in midfield. He is versatile,” Xavi said about the player who is on loan from Manchester City.
Marking Bellingham, however, will have to be a group effort, starting with a midfield full of doubts because of the questionable fitness levels of players like Pedri and De Jong. Holding midfielder Oriol Romeu and Ilkay Gundogan appear to be shoo-ins for Xavi’s starting midfield, which could also include tackler Gavi Paéz.
“Oriol and the other midfielders will have to be on guard,” Xavi said. “We have to be careful with the quick transitions and counterattacks by Madrid … But we will be brave. We won’t change our playing style or our strategy. We want to go for the game and try to dominate possession.”
Bellingham has helped fill the scoring void left by Karim Benzema’s departure to Saudi Arabia and has scored a team-high 11 goals in 12 matches. That includes a competition-high eight goals in the league.
Bellingham has scored by joining the attack in a second wave, poached timely winners by knowing where to be in the box, and created his own goals after gliding past defenders and finding the net with well-placed shots.
So Madrid appears to have the slight advantage in midfield — an area Barcelona used to dominate when Xavi was a player — where Ancelotti normally puts Bellingham alongside Toni Kroos, Federico Valverde, and holder Aurélien Tchouaméni. That leaves Madrid with the luxury of using Luka Modric as a second-half substitute to put games away.
The doubt Ancelotti could have is where to put Eduardo Camavinga, who can play as a more defensive midfielder, perhaps in place of Tchouaméni, or at left back instead of Ferland Mendy.
“Camavinga has played well, but Mendy has the advantage because he rested the last game,” Ancelotti said, hinting he could use one to substitute the other. “It is difficult for a player to play the entire match, so those who start on the bench know they can still contribute.”
Ancelotti will also have to plan alternatives to deal with the gems that Xavi has discovered at La Masia academy over recent months.
A new crop of young talents have emerged from Barcelona’s training academy, led by 16-year-old forward Lamine Yamal, who has broken records for the youngest player to score for both Barcelona and Spain, and 20-year-old midfielder Fermín López, who was the team’s best player in its Champions League win over Shakhtar Donetsk this week.
“Playing with homegrown players is a bonus,” Xavi said. “Players who came up through La Masia know how important this game is. It is fundamental.”
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