Carlo Ancelotti’s side will take to the pitch at the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid against their arch rivals Barcelona on Sunday three points clear of second-placed Atletico Madrid, while the Blaugrana are a further point behind in third. So even a loss for Los Blancos will see them stay at least level on points with their city rivals and one better off Gerardo Martino’s team.
Which is why Barcelona need to play 'the perfect match', as Andres Iniesta so bluntly puts it. A defeat would place the defending champions seven points off the pace, and that would essentially extinguish their title hopes. The Blaugrana warmed up for the Clasico with a 7-0 triumph over Osasuna at Camp Nou last weekend, but defeats to Real Valladolid and Real Sociedad away from home must still be fresh in their mind.
Coach Martino, who took over last summer, has often come in for criticisms from the Catalan club’s supporters, not just for some disappointing results, but also for tweaking the team’s style of football. The Argentine has often taken a more pragmatic approach in order to grind out matches, deploying the long ball system and asking his players to float in more crosses into the opponents’ area.
That has not gone down well among many Barcelona fans, who will be urging their team to win, and win in style, in Madrid. The last time the two sides met at Camp Nou back in October, goals from Neymar and Alexis Sanchez proved enough for a 2-1 victory, despite a late strike from Jese Rodriguez. That win saw Barca go six points clear at the top of the league table, and many wrote off Real Madrid’s chances of winning the Primera Division in Ancelotti’s first season in charge.
However, since that match, Real Madrid have gone from strength to strength and will head into Sunday’s encounter unbeaten in their last 31 competitive matches. Los Blancos have also booked their place in the Copa del Rey final and the Champions League quarter-finals (and so have Barcelona), with their attacking trio of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo – known as the ‘BBC’ - scoring 76 of their 119 goals this campaign.
Not everything is doom and gloom for Barcelona, though. Their very own attacking triumvirate of Lionel Messi, Pedro and Alexis Sanchez have racked up 49 league goals, although Neymar is likely to get the nod ahead of the latter for the Clasico. Pedro has been sensational in recent months, while Messi has recovered from his hamstring injury and is back to his best. Comprehensive victories in both legs over Manchester City in the last-16 of the Champions League will have also boosted their confidence.
Yet there is a feeling that a win at the Bernabeu is beyond Barcelona, and a defeat is almost certainly going to throw them out of the title race. Last week ahead of their clash against Man City at Camp Nou, Javier Mascherano claimed that Barcelona are 'not dead yet'. But come Monday morning, and their La Liga title hopes may well be.
Players to watch:
Lionel Messi: The Argentine forward has struggled with injuries this season, but that has not deterred him from scoring 18 goals in 21 La Liga games and eight in five Champions League fixtures. The 26-year-old also became the Blaugrana’s all-time leading scorer with his hat-trick in their 7-0 home win against Osasuna last weekend, taking his tally to 17 goals in 18 matches in all competitions since his return from a hamstring injury in January. On occasions this campaign Messi has looked a bit disconcerted and confused in Martino’s more pragmatic approach, but he is now back to his best and will once again be leading his side’s attack in El Clasico.
Karim Benzema: Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Luka Modric all will be crucial for Real Madrid, but the French striker will be the key. This term the 26-year-old has reinvented himself, not only looking sharper and more agile after losing weight, but also showing more confidence and more intelligence when to pass the ball and when to shoot. The hard work that Benzema has put into his game since Madrid’s Clasico defeat in October is reflected in his 15 goals and six assists in 27 La Liga matches. Benzema will be leading the attack in a 4-3-3 formation and his movements, ability to link up his teammates and create space will be critical for Madrid in opening up the Barca defence.
Probable starting lineups:
Real Madrid: Diego Lopez; Daniel Carvajal, Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo; Luka Modric, Xabi Alonso, Angel di Maria; Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo
Barcelona: Victor Valdes; Daniel Alves, Javier Mascherano, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba; Xavi, Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fabregas; Neymar, Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta
Prediction: Real Madrid have lost just once at home all season and, given the form that they are in at the moment, it will be really tough for the Blaugrana to change that record. However, Martino’s side do have the potential to pick up all three points at the Santiago Bernabeu and will most likely come away with a draw. Expect a few goals, though.
Real Madrid 2-2 Barcelona