Just a point separates Barcelona and Real Madrid at the top of La Liga heading into Sunday's eagerly anticipated Clásico clash between the giants of Spanish football at the Camp Nou.
Certainly in most quarters, this game is being billed as a title decider. If Barcelona win, they will extend their lead at the summit to four points and, with 10 encounters to play beyond the clash on Sunday, that could be enough to keep the Catalan side a safe distance above their eternal rivals.
Attending his pre-match press conference on Saturday lunchtime, despite the hype, expectation and crucial nature of this particular Clasico encounter, Barcelona manager Luis Enrique offered his take on the importance of the meeting with Real Madrid, (via translations from Inside Spanish Football).
He said: "This is a different kind of game, because we’re facing our eternal rivals and our closest rival in the league table, plus getting points in this game stops our rival from getting them. There’s also goal-average too. There are many incentives and this game has a special connotation for all Barcelona fans."
Pressed on whether this Clasico will play a decisive hand in which team wins La Liga this season, Enrique pointed out: "I don’t think it’s going to be decisive, as there’s still ten games to go. It’s very important, but not decisive."
Enrique also believes that ahead of any clash between Barcelona and Real Madrid, predicting an outcome is also impossible: "Generally speaking, we tend to think that in games like these, there are no clear favourites. There's so much to play for, both teams are at a very high level, the quality of the players is out of this world."
Regarding whether playing in front of a packed to the rafters Camp Nou crowd could make the difference, the 44-year-old Asturian coach did suggest: "Being at home can be an important factor, because our fans can provide an added factor of motivation or intensity."
What cannot be ignored by Enrique is the recent history behind Real Madrid, along with the motivations for Barcelona to take the points, as he observed: "They’re the reigning champions of Europe and we have an opportunity to distance ourselves from them in La Liga. We’ll need to be at our best, solid in defence and effective in attack."
Enrique is also more than conscious of the threats posed by Carlo Ancelotti's side, given Barcelona were beaten in the last Clasico encounter at the Santiago Bernabéu, during the first half of the season. As such, he cautioned: "I’m expecting us to face the Real Madrid we faced in the first half of the season. A side that gets back well inside their own half of the pitch and breaks forward well in the transitions from defence to attack. They have an infinite amount of resources at their disposal, can dominate aspects of play and can do that very well."
This will be Enrique's second Clasico in a managerial capacity with Barcelona, so when asked about the difference emotionally between participating on the pitch, compared to being on the touchline barking orders to his team, he explained: "I’ve had the good fortune to experience many Clásico encounters as a participant. As a manager though, it’s less intense personally. You must manage them in a cold and calculating in way, in order to take important decisions, during decisive moments of the game."
One of the key battles that will be under close scrutiny from fans around the world of both teams will be the respective attacking tridents. The 'MSN' trio of Messi, Suárez and Neymar, battling against the 'BBC' trio of Bale, Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, as arguably the best attacking players in world football, seek supremacy in front of goal.
Enrique also offered his thoughts in that regard, beginning with his observation and respect for the attacking potency Real Madrid have at their disposal, commenting: "Any of the players Real Madrid have in attack, given their individual qualities, can resolve any game. They’re among the three best players in the world in their positions and that’s always a danger."
As for his own talented trio of attackers, Enrique praised: "The progress of Luis Suárez has been very positive and he still has room to improve. Neymar is one of our most decisive players, with his capability to score goals and make an important contribution in other areas of our play. He gives us lots of options offensively and defensively."
Leaving possibly the best player in world football to last though, when talking about not just the wonderful talent of Lionel Messi but also his leadership qualities for Barcelona, Enrique enthused: "Perhaps at certain times we’ve seen players close to the level of Leo, but what makes him different is how he interprets games, his capacity to read into what’s required; whether that’s laying on an assist, defending, making decisions… beyond his numbers as a scorer."
All eyes will be on the Camp Nou on Sunday and however much Luis Enrique or Ancelotti try to reduce the pressure on their players heading into the game, the desire and determination of both sets of protagonists to win will undoubtedly be without limits.