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Spanish Inquisition: Can Real Madrid Beat Barcelona Without Pepe & Robben?

If you've been thinking Real Madrid were lucky to beat Getafe, you'd be right.

There have been times when they have persevered, played in first gear without being under any real undue pressure, and when every semi-routine save made by Iker Casillas has been turned into some sort of miraculous, game-saving moment. On those days, they were more lacklustre than lucky.

Often when Madrid play badly, they just lose - Getafe will remember that well enough from the reverse fixture this season.

But last night, Soldado missed two golden opportunities and Albin another one - Casquero's saved penalty goes without saying - and none of these chances being spurned had much to do with Madrid's quality. There were no last-ditch challenges to put off the striker as he hit the ball, nor were the angles too difficult to score from. Aside from Casillas' cleverness in not overcommitting from the spot - allowing him to recover and save what was an awful penalty anyway - Madrid were gifted the chance just to stay in the game.

Stay in they did: missing some chances of their own before moments of absolute brilliance from Guti and Higuain proved too hot to handle. Decisive. Match-winning.

We've seen it a lot lately. Gago's wonder-pass for Marcelo just three days ago, to name but one. Robben, Huntelaar, Higuain and Guti have all produced them in recent weeks. It is strange that despite Barcelona being renowned as the team with all the world's best players, it is Madrid who win game after game off the back of moments of world class individual quality, whereas the Cules tend to sustain overwhelming levels of pressure until they eventually score what often end up being quite simple goals. Madrid continue to do it the hard way.

Though they may have been lucky on the night, the win came at an ominous price. Arjen Robben, just 17 minutes after being introduced as a substitute, overexerted himself in trying to make the difference, to the extent that he pulled up with a calf strain and is now in doubt for the Clasico, though no official word has yet come from the Madrid doctors.

Pepe, meanwhile, is that much more certain to miss the game. A usually friendly and jolly giant, upon conceding what was a soft and controversial penalty, he lashed out and aimed three kicks at the 'offender', Casquero, as he lay on the ground. There was also an alleged punch aimed at Albin off camera and a stream of curses aimed at the fourth official. The most saddening aspect was that you got the feeling he was still holding back, such was his anger at the time. The banhammer has not yet come down on the Brazilian-born Portuguese international, but even a three-match ban would rule him out of the Barcelona bash, never mind the six or more that many are expecting, and demanding, that will effectively end his season.

Robben and Pepe are arguably the most important players for attack and defence respectively, and in a game as big as the Clasico, can Madrid really win without them?

Many will remember Pepe's epic performance, perhaps his best as a Madrid player, in the 1-0 Camp Nou Clasico win, in which the big man marked Samuel Eto'o out of the game. But then again, Pepe was unavailable for the reverse fixture this season, and even though it ended in a late defeat, the defending as a unit was nevertheless exemplary. That was just Juande Ramos' second game in charge; factor in how this side has grown collectively since then and, in theory at least, this is a side that can contain Barcelona, Messi and all.

And though Robben was sorely missed last night, that was just as much because of the poor system deployed in his absence as it was because of his absence itself. In the past, against Sporting Gijon and Real Betis, without Robben there was a magnificently innovative 5-3-2 sort of formation that gave Madrid a complete shape in terms of width from Sergio Ramos and Marcelo, solidity in defence from Heinze, Cannavaro and Pepe as well as Lass and Gago deep in midfield, then adding the potency in attack of Higuain, Huntelaar and Raul playing behind.

Metzelder replacing Pepe may not prove so bitter a blow if the German continues in his current vein of form, though it may restrict how high up the pitch los Blancos are able to play. Even removing one of Raul or Huntelaar for Van der Vaart or Guti would perhaps allow the reigning champions to muster up some magic and provide more of a threat from set plays.

If there is one thing that can be said for this Madrid side, it's that they do not rely on just one or two stars. If some are out, the others will step up and win the day. It has happened all season and it could still happen in the Clasico. Of course, it's unlikely; even with a full-strength team, Madrid can't quite match Barca for quality - it almost goes without saying - but the key is that their chances have not further diminished by too great a margin after the loss of two star players last night.

So if they win the Clasico - and they will have to win, not just draw - then as 2006-07 illustrated in the most incredible fashion, anything can and probably will happen.

Sulmaan Ahmad,