Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno - Getty Images
Real Madrid might not play Luka Modric from the start in El Clasico, but he's certain to play a crucial role.
Imagine you're the manager of Real Madrid. You're on the road at the Camp Nou, facing a must-not-lose game against Barcelona. It's generally accepted that they have the stronger midfield and that they're going to have a majority of the possession, even if your team thoroughly outplays them everywhere on the pitch. It's simply a product of the style of football they choose to play.
You've spent €30m on what is essentially a joker, Luka Modric. He can fill any role you want, at any time, and will provide the team with the exact same things no matter where he's deployed on the pitch. He would help your team keep the ball -- and therefore keep the ball away from Barcelona -- better than any other Madrid player, but he hasn't been first choice since arriving at the Santiago Bernabeu. At the same time, Madrid's first choice lineup has big wins over Manchester City and Ajax, and managed to outplay Barcelona for about 150 of 180 minutes during Clasicos last season.
So, what do you do? Do you play Modric from the start? Or do you keep the joker in your deck for when you really need it?
Modric was explicitly purchased for games like this, and will be used in some way. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which Modric doesn't come off the bench for Madrid on Sunday, due to his versatility. If Madrid are down a goal and need to chase a game, he can be deployed as the deepest man in midfield, trying to unlock the Barcelona defense and spring counter-attacks. If Madrid's wide men aren't getting the job done and Barcelona have done a good job of taking away Madrid's width, Modric can be deployed out wide to give the Blaugrana something different to think about. If Madrid are trying to protect a lead late, he can play an advanced midfield role to put pressure on Sergio Busquets, while helping Madrid play keep-away when they win the ball back.
The most interesting thing about Modric's versatile skill set and his potential role in El Clasico is that there's no way to predict whether or not he'll start, when he'll come in if he doesn't, and what role he'll play whether he starts or comes off the bench. Mourinho has shown a willingness to stick with his normal lineup against Barcelona, but he's also gone with more conservative versions of the same 4-2-3-1, as well as the widely lauded or derided, depending on which sect of the media you're reading, trivot that he deployed two years ago with Pepe as a defensive midfielder.
Modric can play as a wide player, advanced midfielder or pivot midfielder regardless of the formation and larger tactical goals that Mourinho has for the match, so his selection in the starting XI won't indicate anything from the start. Unless Mourinho's team is the same XI that he's picked for most of this season and in the last two league Clasicos, it will be impossible to guess Madrid's formation and how they're going to play.
Whether or not he starts, Modric is likely to play a key role in Sunday's match. His addition to the Madrid squad is the most interesting recent development between these two teams, and neutrals will be hoping that the match stays within a one-goal margin either way so they can see what Mourinho has in store.
Check out our video preview of the match