There is a lot riding in this game for Real Madrid, who are 10 points behind their arch-rivals and need to play out of their skins to beat the defending Spanish champions. Despite winning the treble last season, there is barely a note that has gone wrong for Barca this season. The previous El Clasico, which was played at the Santiago Bernabeau clearly showed where the two teams are placed. The Blaugurana, without even having Lionel Messi for the better part of the game ran riot and thumped their opponents 4-0. Little has changed with the approach of the two teams since then.
As a team, Barca have their deficiencies in other areas of the pitch. With Dani Alves bombing forward on the right flank, space opens up for Real to exploit and it happens to be the area Cristiano Ronaldo patrols. There previous Clasico was a disaster for the two-time Ballon d’Or winner and the fortunes of the most successful Spanish clubs lie squarely on Ronaldo. Jordi Alba is also an attacking full-back but Barca have their ways to get goals and that is in front of goal. There is talk of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar being the most deadly and potent strike force in recent memory. Pepe and Sergio Ramos need to have a near-perfect game to stop their opponents from scoring.
A lot of reference points in the game goes back to the previous El Clasico. It exposed not just Real Madrid the team but the structure of the club too. Days after the thrashing, Los Blancos sacked manager Rafael Benitez and handed the job to club legend Zinedine Zidane. There was naivete in the team selection. By no means are Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquests and Ivan Rakitic an average bunch of midfielders. Having an anchorman to break down attacks and stopping the ball from reaching Barca’s strike trio was going to pivotal in the teams’ fortunes. Iniesta had a field day as a result, having acres of space in the opposition box and threading through balls to Neymar and Suarez.
Casmeiro, who has had a reasonably good start to his Real career will be the only change in the line-up. The Brazilian will give license for Toni Kroos and Luca Modric to play with a little more freedom. Barca though, are a side not used to losing. Their last defeat was in October 2015, when they lost 1-2 to Sevilla in a league game. Since then, they have won the next 39 of their games, winning 30 of them. It is almost impossible to stop the European champions when they go through a winning streak and El Clasico is usually a fixture that some of their big players bring their A game.
In reply to Barca’s ‘MSN’, abbreviations for Messi Suarez and Neymar, Real have ‘BBC’, with Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale forming the supporting cast to Ronaldo. In the recent big games, Real have cut a sorry figure. They need to get off the blocks early, break down play in the middle of the park and stretch play. Ronaldo will be making his trademark runs through the channels and Real have to get as many crosses as they can to their talisman.
That, though is easier said than done. There is a gulf in class between the two old rivals. They even have different ambitions at the moment. Barca are in the pursuit of being the first team to win back-to-back Champions League titles. Real are seeking to be the best club in their own city. There is plenty of goals in this one!
Claudio Bravo; Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba; Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquests, Andres Iniesta; Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar
Keylor Navas; Dani Carvajal, Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo; Luca Modric, Casmerio, Toni Kroos; Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo