Spanish, European and world champions Madrid trail their great rivals by 11 points in the league. Defeat on Saturday could prove fatal to their hopes of retaining the title.
Barcelona on course to reclaim top status from Real Madrid in complete turnaround from start of season
It's the one game in football which needs no hype, in part because it usually fulfils it.
No other delivers such consistent excellence, entertainment and the biggest names, including the world’s best two players. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have both scored 53 goals each in 2017, a great year for the latter who has now won 53 major team or individual titles. Messi has 55.
Saturday’s clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid at the Bernabeu will be their final game of a year in which Madrid have been world football’s pre-eminent force. Ronaldo missing training this week is seen as a ruse by most in Catalonia.
The teams do not play for a draw when they meet because they don’t know how to play for draws. If Barcelona win, as they did in the equivalent fixture last season, they will move 14 points clear of their greatest rivals, who have a game in hand.
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Barca are unbeaten in their 16 league games, Madrid have lost twice. Ernesto Valverde’s side have scored more goals from fewer shots and conceded fewer - an astonishing 17 clean sheets in 26 games - than Zinedine Zidane’s men. Barca are more clinical and more decisive, yet recent results show Madrid are motoring into form.
It’s a complete turnaround to the status quo at the start of the season when Spanish, European and world champions Madrid outclassed the Catalans 5-1 in two Spanish Super Cup games to win one of their five trophies this year.
Just as momentum was building against Barca from their own fans, with substantial protests against the club president who took the blame for selling Brazilian forward Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain, Barca had a surprisingly excellent start to the season.
While the issue of Catalan independence has bulked large in the background, the team have continued to win and are without a defeat in 24 games since the second Super Cup reverse.
Politics have remained prominent and will influence Saturday’s events at the Bernabeu following Thursday’s elections in Catalonia. As a result of the Catalan issue, the rest of Spain saw an upsurge in Spanish nationalism, with the Spain flag visible far more than usual across all of Spain.
Regardless of the opponents, there has never been a shortage of Spain flags at matches in the Bernabeu, that most Spanish of institutions, but the numbers will be increased on Saturday.
Barcelona’s players have to rise above the noise, but it’s not like they’re not used to it. The odd generous ovation for Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi aside, they know they are loathed by all but 200 travelling fans in the 80,000 crowd.
Paulinho, the captain of Brazil no less, was derided by Barca fans when he signed from China, yet he has been a success and plays in a similar combative midfield role to his compatriot Casemiro in Madrid.
The biggest match up is between Messi and Ronaldo and while the Portuguese has hit form and scored the goal which made Madrid world champions in Abu Dhabi last week, he’s lagging behind Messi in the league with only four goals to the Argentine’s 14.
Barca have evolved better than fans could have hoped after the loss of Neymar, especially as they have been unable to use their record signing, €105 million (Dh457.4m) striker Ousmane Dembele.
The 20-year-old France international will soon be starting again at the club he joined from Borussia Dortmund in July.He is back in training but the clasico is likely to come too soon for him.
Veteran Javier Mascherano is expected to leave after eight successful seasons in Spain, a surprise since he pushed for the move, probably for a lucrative contract in China, but he’s right that Samuel Umtiti is the future in his position and Barca need to look at younger players in their ageing midfield.
Umtiti is out injured until January, but Andres Iniesta is back and playing well. Gareth Bale should also make a return. They will line up with the plethora of stellar names which makes this the greatest game in football.