It’s all about the Clasico this week in La Liga, with all other action being shoved aside by the juggernaut which is a potentially title deciding Barcelona v Real Madrid at the Camp Nou on Sunday night.
Most of the coverage has pointed to Barca being overwhelming favourites, having won 16 of their last 17 games in all competitions, and talisman Lionel Messi signalling he was back to top form with a mesmerising performance in Wednesday’s 1-0 mauling of Manchester City in their Champions League last 16 return game.
Meanwhile it’s all been doom and gloom at Madrid, with Cristiano Ronaldo’s mental and physical well-being under the spotlight, and the futures of ‘La Decima’ winning coach Carlo Ancelotti and long-serving club captain Iker Casillas again apparently much in doubt.
While some of the analysis has veered a little off the scale, there is a certain amount of truth to the general narrative. Barca have been playing very well recently, with Messi clicking alongside Luis Suarez and Neymar up top. Defensively they have looked pretty solid, with Luis Enrique’s liking for intensity and physicality in midfield helping too.
Meanwhile Madrid have struggled each time they’ve faced a difficult opponent so far in 2015 - losing 2-1 at Valencia, being hammered 0-4 at Atletico Madrid, and looking short on ideas and fight when being beaten 1-0 at Athletic Bilbao in their last away La Liga fixture. There was also the chaos of their 3-4 home reverse to Schalke in the Champions League.
Last week’s 2-0 win over Levante at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu steadied the ship to an extent, and Ancelotti also tried to settle things down by confirming his starting XI for the Clasico directly afterwards, including sticking with the much criticised Casillas in goal. Midfielder Luka Modric and centre-back Sergio Ramos also proved their fitness in that game, while the ‘BBC’ strikeforce of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo are untouchable upfront.
The Italian coach admitted then that his team would have to improve to worry an in-form Barca. “We did well for one half today, we need to do well in the whole game on Sunday,” said Ancelotti. “It will be a different game. We need to be at our best, then we can win.”
Luis Enrique’s line-up is more difficult to predict, especially as Sergio Busquets returned to training with the squad on Thursday morning after a few weeks out with an ankle ligament injury. Should Busquets be fit to come in, Javier Mascherano would most likely drop to defence, with Jeremy Mathieu missing out. Veteran playmaker Xavi Hernandez is set to be on the bench again. One sure change from Wednesday is that La Liga keeper Claudio Bravo will return in goal, despite Marc-Andre Ter Stegen’s penalty save against City.
“I've the feeling we’re arriving well for the clasico,” the blaugrana coach said after Wednesday’s game. “We’re ready to put on a good show on Sunday. [But] it won't be decisive in the title race, and to talk of favourites seems risky or arrogant to me.”
Less mentioned in the build-up has been Madrid having beaten Barca on each of their last two meetings - with Bale scoring the winner in the 2014 Copa del Rey final, and Ancelotti’s side easing to 3-1 win at the Bernabeu last October. Even a draw for the visitors on Sunday would be seen as a moral victory, and they have avoided defeat on three of their last five visits to the Camp Nou in all competitions.
However the contrasting natures of the two teams’ more recent performances - and particularly those of Messi and Ronaldo - suggest the form book should remain inside the window.
One pointer is that, in their biggest games of the season so far, including both Champions League ties against Manchester City, Barca have started very fast and taken an early lead. Unlike previous sides who tried to defend with long spells of possession, Luis Enrique’s current team team do not mind sitting deep and drawing opponents on, then using their new more direct midfield and super sharp front three to hit teams on the break.
A fast Barca start could definitely pay dividends against a Madrid side so short of confidence at the moment. And if Luis Enrique’s team do get ahead they are likely to kill the game dead.
Predicted result: Barca 3-1 Madrid at 11.00
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