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Rotation gamble may return to haunt Guardiola

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 sees as a highly probable burnout towards the end of the season.

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 on their travels so far this season, some fans are asking what good a squad with plenty still in the tank come May will do them if, by then, the league has already gone.

Real Madrid opened up a six-point gap recently and 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 before abandoning the plan at half-time.

Of course, Guardiola will pick his best side tonight -- not that anyone is sure what that is any more. 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' arrival has made it four for three places in midfield, but so keen has Guardiola been to play all four when possible, he has played with just three at the back or, as he is expected to do tonight, with four defenders and only two attackers.

Alves, Pique and either 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 will be his first league Clasico following his 10-minute appearance as a substitute in the Super Cup second leg.

The former Arsenal skipper 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.

Messi remains Barcelona's biggest threat. He has scored 13 goals in 15 games against Real and his duel with 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 in April -- a result that all but ended Real's hopes of catching Barcelona in the league.

Will tonight do the same for Guardiola's battle-worn players heading off to Japan in the morning to play in the World Club Championship? (© Independent News Service)

El Clasico: Real Madrid v Barcelona,

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Irish Independent