After taking a four-month break to cut swaths through Europe and, in Barca's case, drop points on the road with alarming frequency, Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid and Pep Guardiola's Barcelona will have a little get-together on Saturday at 4 p.m. Light refreshments and occasional eye-gouges will be served. The proceedings will be broadcast on GolTV, ESPN Deportes, ESPN3, and any one of a number of streaming Internet feeds of dubious legality. As I do every year, I will make an appeal for any college football fans who have been thinking about checking out a European footie match to spend some time on Saturday watching this match. SEC fans, just watch the reactions of the fans in the stands as the game progresses. The looks of sheer anger and exhilaration will be quite familiar to you. Plus, you will be watching the two best players and the two best teams in the world,* bar none and without any dispute. Come on, this is our first Saturday without college football and you have the perfect dose of methadone staring you in the face. Plus, there is a good chance that there will be more scoring than there was in Bama-LSU.
* - Real and Barca are now almost prohibitive favorites to win the Champions League. The two best contenders from England are out, Bayern Munich have slowed down after a fast start, and Barca recently won on the road against the best side from Serie A. The only question seems to be whether Barca and Real will avoid each other until the final.
For those of you who are already familiar with the game and the players, here are my thoughts of what to watch for in the match:
1. How does Pep line up his forward line? I assume that he is not going to play three at the back, given that Real play one striker (three at the back really makes more sense against two) and Puyol and Pique are both available. I further assume that the midfield will be Busquets, Xavi, and Iniesta. (Busquets gets the nod over Mascherano because the latter has become more of a defender than a midfielder.) So who goes with Messi up top? Alexis Sanchez, who is coming back to health and has played really well over the past week? Pedro, who just came back from an injury spell on Tuesday, but who gives the team more width and has a great record of scoring against Real? Isaac Cuenca, the latest product of La Masia and a player who Guardiola already trusts to be in the right place at the right time? David Villa, the big star who has been struggling and whose confidence might be shattered by starting the match on the bench? My guess is that Pep will go with Villa and Sanchez alongside Messi. The other possibility is Cesc, playing an advanced role along with Messi and then one of the aforementioned forwards switching wings to provide width. Cesc and Messi have developed a great understanding with one another and Cesc brings dimensions that the rest of the team lacks, namely the abilities to: (1) crash the box from the midfield to provide a target for Messi's passes; and (2) shoot from outside of the box with accuracy. If Real play defensively, then Cesc is the countermeasure. Also, with his experience as a midfielder, he can be the one to harass Xabi Alonso - Real's fulcrum - when Los Merengues have the ball.
2. Does Mourinho play a third defensive midfielder? Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira seem like automatics. Does he then add Lass Diarra to the mix in place of Meszut Ozil, who is slumping like Villa? Is he going to play a pure counter-attacking game or is he going to press? If it's the former, then he plays Diarra. If it's the latter, then he plays Ozil. As is always the case when Mourinho teams play Barca, it will be most interesting to see how aggressive Real are and whether they let Barca have the ball in non-dangerous areas. Real were far more offensive in the Supercup matches in August and they have been scoring goals by the bushel in La Liga, so I am not going to assume that Jose parks the bus.
3. Does Mourinho go with Benzema or Higuain up front? Benzema is the more technically gifted player, but Higuain is the superior counter-attacking weapon. Again, Real's orientation will determine the selection.
4. Who plays right back for Real? Is Alvaro Arbeloa healthy enough? If not, does Diarra go there? Does Sergio Ramos go there, knowing that Real are then shakier in the middle? Does Fabio Coentrao play the spot?
5. Which Brazilian fullback is the bigger defensive liability: Marcelo or Dani Alves? Mourinho usually puts Angel Di Maria opposite Alves because Di Maria is better at tracking back than Ronaldo. In the past, this has meant that Real have been weaker offensively against a potential Barca defensive weakness, but Di Maria is in great form, so they don't have to make a sacrifice this time around.* Barca have given up goals this year when opponents have gotten down the wings and then pulled the ball back to late-arriving attackers. Real will almost certainly look to do this: Ronaldo and Di Maria getting into advanced positions, the striker making a run to occupy the central defenders, and then a midfielder - Alonso or Khedira - arriving late to occupy the space vacated by the central defenders. Conversely, Pep's decision on his front line will be interesting. His right-sided attacker is going to get chances against Marcelo. (The biggest goal of the five Barca-Real matches last season was Messi's opener in the Champions League first leg. That came from Affellay skinning Marcelo and getting in a low cross that Messi knocked home.) Who is that attacker going to be and can that attacker help out defensively when Marcelo gets forward.
* - Invalidating everything I just said, Mourinho had Ronaldo on the left in the Supercup matches and Dani Alves did a great job defending him. The title of this paragraph is a little unfair, as Alves can be underrated as a defensive player.
6. How does the ref call the game? The referee will be under enormous pressure. Barca will want the game called tight, with frequent cards for hard fouls. Real will want license to put in physical tackles. Any decision to send a player off will be analyzed a million times over. Does the ref want to be harangued by the Barca players on the pitch or Mourinho off of it? And will Barca's players and Mourinho behave better after they all did themselves and their teams a disservice by their embarrassing conduct in the first leg of the Champions League tie last year?
Overall, I'll take a 2-2.