Benitez under fire before 1st Clasico

Karim Benzema, who has not played for Real Madrid since early last month, is back in training. But there are questions over the Frenchman's state of mind following the terrorist attacks in Paris, as well as his being charged in the blackmailing case
Karim Benzema, who has not played for Real Madrid since early last month, is back in training. But there are questions over the Frenchman's state of mind following the terrorist attacks in Paris, as well as his being charged in the blackmailing case of compatriot Mathieu Valbuena. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Real Madrid are three points behind Barca, Messi could possibly return to lead attack

MADRID • Some 2,400 police, stewards and emergency services will form a triple ring of security around the Santiago Bernabeu today but there is nothing they can do about Real Madrid manager Rafael Benitez's job security.

While they will be in place for Real's huge clash with Barcelona in response to the deadly attacks in Paris a week ago, only Benitez's men can take the pressure off the under-fire manager.

The Spaniard has struggled to shed a reputation as a defence-minded tactician and ominous rumblings of discontent have been building in recent weeks.

Real go into one of the biggest games in world football three points behind leaders and champions Barca after they slipped to a 2-3 loss at Sevilla in their last outing.

  • Five key duels that could decide the Clasico

  • Marcelo v Lionel Messi

    Messi looks set to return from a two-month injury layoff on the biggest stage where he has so often made the difference.

    Messi is the top scorer in the history of the fixture with 21 goals and Marcelo will have the unenviable task of marshalling him defensively, while also playing a major role in Madrid's attacks down the left-hand side.

    Sergio Ramos v Luis Suarez

    Suarez recently described Ramos as the toughest defender he has faced, but it was the Uruguayan who got the upper hand when the sides last met with the winner in a 2-1 Barca win.

    Ramos will play with a painkilling injection to numb the discomfort from a dislocated left shoulder and Madrid need a captain's display to prevent Suarez adding to his 13 goals in 17 games this season.

    Cristiano Ronaldo v Daniel Alves

    Ronaldo also has a formidable record in this fixture with 15 Clasico goals to his name. Yet, his form has come under the microscope in recent weeks as he has failed to score in seven of 11 league games this season.

    Alves has also had a dip in form since his exceptional displays at the end of last season earned him a new two-year contract. But, throughout his career, he has at least marshalled Ronaldo better than the vast majority of right-backs.

    Luka Modric v Sergio Busquets

    Often overshadowed by the star strikers on show, Modric and Busquets are the brains of both sides in midfield.

    Busquets has been lauded by Barca coach Luis Enrique as the "best midfielder in the world" in recent weeks and has taken on the mantle from Xavi Hernandez in setting the rhythm for Barca's passing game.

    Modric's influence on Madrid has grown with every season at the Bernabeu and, after a slow start to his Real career, is now considered undroppable.

    Rafael Benitez v Luis Enrique

    Of the two managers, it is Benitez who has most to prove.

    Just one defeat - his first in 15 games as Madrid boss, and against Sevilla last time out - was enough to intensify the doubts in the Madrid dressing room and media about the former Liverpool manager's meticulous methods.

    Enrique is a more emotional character but allows his side more freedom to express themselves as was demonstrated by the stunning success of a treble in his debut season in charge.

    He is even more despised by the Madrid fans than your average Barca manager after controversially leaving Real to join Barca as a player 19 years ago.

    However, he is yet to win at the Bernabeu as a manager.

    AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Defeat by their arch rivals could spell the beginning of the end for the 55-year-old. The Spanish media have already begun speculating that Real legend Zinedine Zidane has been lined up to replace him.

There have been reports that Cristiano Ronaldo claimed that "we'll win nothing with this coach".

But Benitez, ahead of his first Clasico, denied that his players are unhappy with his tactics.

"I respect your profession, the work you do, the message you pass on to the fans and sometimes you have to look for a story where there is no story. It's not true," he told a press conference yesterday.

"I have worked as a coach for many years and so far it has worked."

Despite talk of his negative approach, Real have scored the most league goals (26) this season and have the best goal difference (+19).

Benitez was also the last manager to lose his unbeaten record this season despite missing key players throughout the campaign.

Today will be only the second time that he has a full squad to choose from and just the third time that he has the option of fielding the attacking trident of Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema together.

They all need a big performance.

Ronaldo has failed to net in nine separate games this season.

Bale is looking to silence the mounting critics of the Welshman's inability to perform for Madrid in the biggest games.

Benzema wants to prove he has not lost focus. He was charged with complicity to blackmail and conspiring to commit a criminal act in his native France in a case involving a sex tape featuring international team-mate Mathieu Valbuena.

"Big players like to play in big games against big clubs," said Benitez. He has won four, lost seven and drawn one of 12 matches against Barca over the past two decades with Real Valladolid, Extremadura, Valencia and Liverpool.

"There is extra motivation this week so I am very optimistic.

"We lost in Seville but we were without several key players. We played very well in the first half, not so well in the second.

"It's something we have analysed and worked on."

Other than Lionel Messi, Barca's other injury concern is over Ivan Rakitic, who has a calf woe.

Messi's potential return from a two-month injury layoff would clearly give a new dimension to the Barca attack whether he starts or is deployed off the bench. He has a record 21 goals in this fixture.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2015, with the headline 'BENITEZ UNDER FIRE BEFORE 1ST CLASICO'. Print Edition | Subscribe