MADRID (AFP) – Ronald Koeman will know Barcelona can plunge Real Madrid into crisis tonight (10pm Brunei time) but for him a first Clasico as coach is more about vindication.
Inflicting a third consecutive defeat in a week on Madrid at Camp Nou would create the sort of turbulence for their opponents that Barca have grown only too used to in recent months.
But as much as cranking up the pressure on Zinedine Zidane and gaining an early boost in La Liga’s title race would be welcome, Koeman might claim the biggest rewards from a victory.
Barcelona’s new coach, appointed in August, has overseen a middling start to the season, with three wins, a draw and a defeat meaning the trajectory of his project is not yet clear.
Most encouraging has been Koeman’s faith in youth, which has been repaid handsomely as Ansu Fati, Francisco Trincao and Pedri have all delivered more than expected in attack.
Ansu is the most established of the three, the 17-year-old who set more records by scoring again in the Champions League on Tuesday and has been arguably Barcelona’s stand-out performer so far.
“We go into it with the maximum motivation possible,” said Fati. “It’s a Clasico, a game I have always dreamed of playing in.”
So impressive has he been that it would be a surprise if Ansu was not in the starting line-up this weekend.
But Trincao and Pedri would be braver calls, especially considering those they would replace.
The most pressing issue of Koeman’s tenure is currently Antoine Griezmann, who is now on his third coach at Barcelona but still yet to find anything close to top form.
Griezmann’s problems have not all been of his own making. He was played out of position for much of last season while his controversial arrival prompted speculation about his relationship with teammates and Lionel Messi in particular.
But it is becoming more difficult to justify the Frenchman’s underwhelming performances and it was telling on Tuesday when Koeman left him on the bench for the duration of Barca’s 5-1 win over Ferencvaros, that it was not clear if he was rested or dropped. “It means nothing for the Clasico,” said Koeman.
Perhaps he believes Griezmann needs some tough love, a spell out of the team to make him want to prove himself again. Perhaps the likes of Trincaco are now viable alternatives for his spot.
“Antoine knows his situation. The only thing he can do is work hard to change it,” Koeman said.
The merits of the decision will be defined by the result and in that regard, there will be scrutiny on Messi too, whose contribution is so often decisive.