Pep Guardiola has picked 25 different line-ups in the last 25 matches.
Were he not the mastermind of 12 trophies in three and a half seasons he might have Barcelona fans accusing him of being unable to make his mind up.
More than indecision the constant rotation is being seen as warding off what he thinks will be a highly probable burnout towards the end of the season. Tomorrow Barcelona head off to Japan for the World Club Championship. They did the Champions League and La Liga double last season with a small squad but their coach saw what a toll that took on his most-used players during the run-in and does not want a repeat next year.
That is why he has used 14 different defences, 16 different midfield and forward line combinations, never repeating the same line-up in four months of competition. But with Barcelona dropping nine points in the league on their travels so far this season some fans are asking what good a squad still with plenty in the tank come May will do them if by then the title has already gone. Real Madrid opened up a six-point gap recently – the last time that happened they ended up 18 points clear of their rivals.
Guardiola rested David Villa in the 2-2 draw with Real Sociedad. He left Cesc Fabregas and Carles Puyol in the stands for an away defeat to Getafe and experimented with three at the back in a draw with Valencia – abandoning the plan at half-time.
Of course tonight to face Real at the Bernabeu Guardiola will pick his best side, not that anyone is sure what that is any more. With 25 different selections most commentators would no longer be able to agree on his strongest XI. Last season Victor Valdes lined up behind Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Puyol and Eric Abidal in defence. Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Xavi made up the midfield and Pedro and Villa played either side of Leo Messi in attack.
The team picked itself. Cesc Fabregas's arrival has made it four for three places in midfield but so keen has Guardiola been to play all four when possible he has opted for just three at the back or, as he is expected to do tonight, with four defenders and only two attackers.
Alves, Pique and either Javier Mascherano or Puyol will line-up alongside Abidal behind the four Spain international midfielders and Villa will join Messi up front, leaving the pace of Pedro and Alexis Sanchez on the bench.
Fabregas has scored seven goals in nine league starts so far this season. This is his first league Clasico following his 10-minute appearance as a substitute in the Super Cup second leg. He has less than fond memories of playing Real Madrid as a youngster. He lost 3-2 as a 12-year-old in 1999 in Spain's famous Brunete youth tournament, and he was a substitute later the same year in a 1-0 reverse in front of 12,000 supporters in the final of Torneo de Futbol 7 in Barcelona.
"Real Madrid are the best side in the world on current form," he said this week. But as if in response Iniesta added a day later: "This is the best Barça side I have played in." He and Fabregas are combining almost as well as the former Arsenal captain and Messi, and they will share the responsibility of getting forward to support the Argentine tonight.
Messi remains Barcelona's biggest threat. He has scored 13 goals in 15 games against Real and his duel with Cristiano Ronaldo – they both have 17 in the league – is as close to call as the title race. They both scored in last season's 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu in April – a result that all but ended Real's hopes of catching Barcelona. Will tonight do the same for Guardiola's battle-worn players heading off to Japan in the morning?
The fears over an end of season burnout were first raised in the summer. "We used to have pre-season now we go on tour," Guardiola said after some exhausting globetrotting. But there is one cause for optimism among Barça fans. Despite taking in three continents and on more than one occasion having to call short training sessions because of the humidity in that pre-season, Barça were not found wanting in the curtain raiser double-header against Real.
And as they contemplate not being quite up to Madrid's furious pace again, they can also take heart from being well-rested this week. On Wednesday night Guardiola sent out a side of 20-somethings and watched them beat Belarusian champions BATE Borisov 4-0.
Twenty-four hours later players such as Xabi Alonso and Mesut Ozil were in Amsterdam for Real Madrid's last Champions League group game. On Thursday when Real players were training as normal Guardiola gave his squad the day off. Today, as for all away games, they will arrive on the day of the match. Madrid's players meanwhile will have spent the night together in a hotel away from their families.
The intensity of the challenger's preparations reflects their rude health. The energy conservation of the champions is perhaps a mark of their more fragile state. Ninety minutes in front of an estimated TV audience of 500m will doubtless sort the weak from the strong and Barcelona fans will hope that burnout Guardiola is so worried about, is still a long way off.
Jose and El Clasico: Mourinho's Results
29 November 2010 (La Liga)
Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid
16 April 2011 (La Liga)
Real Madrid 1-1 Barcelona
20 April (Copa del Rey final)
Barcelona 0-1 Real Madrid [aet]
27 April (Champs Lg sf, first leg)
Real Madrid 0-2 Barcelona
3 May (Champs Lg sf, second leg)
Barcelona 1-1 Real Madrid
14 Aug (Spanish Super Cup, first leg)
Real Madrid 2-2 Barcelona
17 Aug (Spanish Super Cup, second leg)
Barcelona 3-2 Real Madrid
Mourinho's record in El Clasicos
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