Reigning champions trail their rivals by 11 points and defeat on Saturday would surely spell the end of their title defence.
Real Madrid need to deliver against Barcelona to have any chance of retaining Primera Liga title
Despite the headlines about alarm bells ringing and an 11-point gap between Barcelona and Real Madrid after only 16 games – albeit with Madrid playing one match less – the reigning Spanish, European and world Champions finished 2017 with a record five trophies for the first time in a calendar year. Barcelona, for whom Madrid will always measure themselves, won one.
Leaders Barcelona visit the Bernabeu on Saturday for another clasico which the world will be watching. Unlike other huge derby games, the clasico almost always delivers: names, goals and the type of entertainment that makes it the biggest game in world football. It helps that both teams want to win the game – usually because they have to.
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Madrid need to beat Barcelona to stand a chance of retaining their league title, just as Barcelona needed to beat Madrid in April when the teams last met in a clasico league derby.
Barcelona did just that, winning 3-2 in the most dramatic game of league football the world has seen this year. Lionel Messi scored the winning goal, his 500th for Barca, with seconds to spare to send his team above Madrid.
Zinedine Zidane’s side held their nerve in subsequent games, Barcelona didn’t. Madrid became champions and the Catalans were written off as a fading force, more so when they lost Neymar to French club Paris Saint-Germain, even more so when they were outclassed by Madrid in both Spanish Super Cup games in August.
The shift in power seemed sure, until Madrid starting dropping points and Barca won their opening eight league games under new manager Ernesto Valverde.
Having returned from Abu Dhabi as the first team to retain the Fifa Club World Cup since the new format was introduced in 2000, Madrid are playing catch-up.
Their fans were unnerved when Cristiano Ronaldo, the five time Ballon d’Or winner who scored the winning goal against Gremio in Abu Dhabi, was unable to train on Wednesday because of a calf strain, but he is still expected to play.
Zidane, who has the task of continually motivating players to win everything, has remained his usual unflappable self throughout. He maintains that his team will be “going well” in February, when the Uefa Champions League resumes.
Last season, they beat Napoli, Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus, and scored 20 goals in their final seven Champions League matches. Ronaldo got 10 in the final five games.
Madrid won the league and European Cup for the first time in the same season since 1959 and Zidane’s job is to preside over more success, to keep his players motivated and hungry for more even when they have been sated and feted by the biggest awards they can win.
Zidane thinks his team are improving, getting fitter and he has no plans to make any signings in the January transfer window but instead hopes for more from his improving young talents and less of the injuries that have limited the number of games for players like Gareth Bale.
The Welshman, 28, has started only 12 of Madrid’s 28 games this season and hasn't started a league game since September. He did feature in Abu Dhabi and is expected to be fit for the clasico, as is fellow striker Karim Benzema.
Fortunately for Zidane, he has outstanding talents around the pitch including midfielder Luca Modric, arguably the team’s most important player after Ronaldo at present.
Madrid looked ominous in their last home game, hammering Sevilla 5-0. A repeat against Barca is inconceivable, but Madrid do rise for the biggest games. Indeed, they’ve won their last 12 finals.
Yet even the best can be undone when Barcelona come to town. That’s why the world will be watching.