x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Uncertainty at Madrid will come into focus after Saturday’s Clasico

The criticism aimed at Real's Carlo Ancelotti, Gareth Bale and Florentino Perez will be muted with a win over Barca.

Carlo Ancelotti has taken criticism for Real Madrid's perceived underperformance at times. Gerard Julien / AFP
Carlo Ancelotti has taken criticism for Real Madrid's perceived underperformance at times. Gerard Julien / AFP

So much for a club in crisis: Real Madrid can move above Barcelona in the league if they beat the Catalans in el clasico on Saturday. Barcelona could stretch their lead to six points or Madrid could draw level. It is a classic six-pointer.

Madrid have endured a mixed season. They have been exceptionally fortunate with refereeing decisions and critics have been numerous among their usually devoted media and fans. Yet criticism will be subdued if they go ahead of their eternal rivals tonight.

The sniping aimed at Madrid has not merely been in general for their as-yet-undefined style under Carlo Ancelotti, their new manager. Gareth Bale, 24, their €91 million (Dh461.8m) footballer, has yet to play 90 minutes for his new club since joining in early September, though Ancelotti claims the Welshman is ready to start against Barca.

The Catalan media have gleefully compared Bale’s fortunes to the rise of Neymar, 21, Barcelona’s big summer signing who cost far less than the former Tottenham star, at €57m, with only €17m paid to his former club, Santos, the rest going to a company owned by Neymar’s father. Neymar has played 13 games to Bale’s four.

The Brazilian hopes to emulate Barcelona’s former Brazilian strikers like Romario, Rivaldo and Ronaldino. Romario scored a hat-trick on his clasico debut, Rivaldo netted in a 3-2 win at the Bernabeu, and Ronaldinho was also on the winning side in Madrid.

Bale has been injured, first with a thigh problem and then an aching back, with elements of the Spanish media claiming the latter is more serious than suggested. Madrid’s dressing room is a calmer place after the departure of Jose Mourinho, but criticism is growing of the manner in which the club president, Florentino Perez, handles affairs. Dissenting voices come chiefly from potential replacements angling for future votes, but Perez needs Bale to excel after sanctioning his signing and the release of the hugely popular Mesut Ozil for half the price.

Bale was fit enough to be introduced as a 66th-minute substitute for Karim Benzema in the midweek win against Juventus, though he struggled to get into the game as the 10-man Italians defended from the edge of their box in the hope of hitting Madrid on a counterattack to equalize. They did not, but, devoid of space to exploit, Bale had no chance to shine, either, though Madrid have won all three Champions League games, scoring 12 and conceding only two.

It has not been an easy adjustment for Bale, who is learning Spanish, but he has found an ally in Cristiano Ronaldo, who has experience in moving from England to Spain for a huge fee and has been very supportive of his new teammate.

“Be patient with him,” Ronaldo said. “Give him time and you will see what a great player he is.” Ronaldo, with six goals in his past four games, and Angel Di Maria have been Madrid’s best players this season.

If he starts, Bale will find more space against a Barcelona team who will attack. Their defence plays high and their 100 per cent record ended with a draw at Osasuna last weekend. Barca drew again at AC Milan midweek.

Bale hopes to follow Britons like David Beckham, and Steve McManaman, who were on the winning side in their clasico debut. Beckham’s victory in 2003 was Madrid’s first victory at Camp Nou in 20 years.

More than 98,000 will attend tonight and Barcelona’s injury worries centre on whether the defender Gerard Pique will play after picking up a hamstring strain. Carles Puyol, 35, is ready to take his place after making a return against Osasuna following a seven-month absence with a knee injury.

“I feel very good,” said Puyol. “The clasico is coming and it is a game which all footballers want to play.”

Despite the high number of meetings between the pair, it’s still also the game which fans around the world most want to see.

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