Matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid are always enormously significant, regardless of the underpinning circumstances heading into the game. But Saturday’s at the Camp Nou feels particularly pertinent, even in the anthology of iconic contests we’ve witnessed between the two.
Indeed, it’s been rare for Barcelona to enter this fixture in a lull of form in recent years. Manager Luis Enrique branded their slapdash effort against Real Sociedad in the 1-1 draw last weekend as the “worst game” since he took over the post in 2014. With six points between them and league leaders Real, it’s clear some serious improvement is needed.
By contrast, this is a game in which Los Blancos can make a major statement. In recent meetings between the two sides it has been rare for Madrid to be in such a strong position and not since their last La Liga triumph, in 2011-12, have they been in a position to deliver what is potentially a telling blow in the race for the title. This is a tremendous chance to do so.
Real, of course, won this fixture last term, coming from behind to snatch a late victory through Cristiano Ronaldo and breathing life back into their title challenge. It was a win that tipped Barca into a poor run of form that almost cost them the La Liga they clinched in 2015-16.
If Los Blancos are to repeat that trick, it’ll be without some key men. With no Gareth Bale and no Toni Kroos, Zidane will need to call on all of his tactical acumen to create a winning formula. There are also big doubts over the fitness of Pepe, Raphael Varane and Casemiro too.
Barcelona’s only major absentee is likely to be Jordi Alba by contrast and Enrique, as such, will be relying on key individuals to make their mark in this one. Far too frequently this season they’ve relied on Lionel Messi to pull them out of the mire and this is a chance for another Clasico hero to emerge.
Where and when to watch the game:
Date: Sunday, April 23
Time: 2:45pm ET
US TV: beIN SPORTS and beIN SPORTS en Español
US streaming: fuboTV (free 7-day trial)
UK TV and streaming: Game is blacked out.
Having spent the summer bolstering the squad with some exciting young acquisitions, there looked to be more depth to so many different areas of the Barcelona team this season. But the Blaugrana have been dependant on the same familiar faces 2016-17.
It’s something epitomized by the struggles of the side since Andres Iniesta has been sidelined with injury. Since he hobbled off against Valencia in late October, Barcelona have only won three of their seven games played. Thankfully for Cules across the globe, the majestic midfielder is set to return this weekend.
The chemistry seems to be skewed in other areas of the side too. While Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez have scored a combined 21 La Liga goals already this term, the special affinity we’ve witnessed between these players in the past hasn’t been quite as prominent. Suarez, in particular, looks a little jaded, with just one goal in his last five.
Regardless of their troubles, this is still Barcelona at the Camp Nou in a Clasico and subsequently there will be players that raise their game. Messi, in particular, is a man that relishes clashes against the Blaugrana’s bitter enemy; with 21 goals in this titanic fixture, no player has scored more in meetings between these teams.
Messi has been pushing Barca through this testing run of recent form with some inspirational displays. But as wonderful as the Argentina international may be, you sense more will be needed from the hosts if they’re to conquer a Los Blancos side that’s been in fine recent form.
Defeat must be avoided if any realistic hopes of a title challenge are to be preserved. Over the last decade it’s been rare to see Barcelona backed up against the wall by Madrid and it’ll be fascinating to see how they react in the face of such adversity.
While Barcelona daren’t lose this encounter, the trip to Catalonia presents a magnificent opportunity for Real Madrid to assert their recent dominance in the division.
If they can take the three points in this fixture, not only will they build a nine-point buffer, they’ll have an edge on Barca in the head-to-head record, which is the determining factor in Spain when two teams are deadlocked on points. It’d be a major surprise if they were to let such an advantage slip.
Even without Bale and Kroos, Zidane’s side look in a fine position to take victory here. While scintillating attacking displays haven’t been seen too frequently from this group of players, in the vast majority of matches Los Blancos have showcased an unshakeable authority; they’ve lost just one league game since the Frenchman took over, accumulating 86 of a possible 99 points.
This is a group of footballers that know how to win big games too. They showcased that in earnest in the UEFA Champions League final win over Atletico Madrid, then again a fortnight ago against the same opponents with a 3-0 rout. Of course, they also beat Barca at the Camp Nou back in April.
And while Barcelona have Messi, Madrid have Ronaldo, who is currently in the middle of one of his famous purple patches. After a hat-trick against Atletico, he netted twice against Sporting Gijon on Saturday. The Portuguese loves silencing the Camp Nou and will be supremely confident of adding to his 16 goals in this fixture.
Expect Los Blancos to adopt a similar gameplan to the one showcased against Atletico, where they countered superbly and maintained a compact shape throughout. Bale’s absence will be a big blow to this blueprint, but Madrid possess enough confidence and enough quality to execute this tactic successfully.
Key battle: Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic vs. Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic
The 4-3-3 system used by Barcelona and the 4-2-3-1 setup likely to be deployed by Madrid means Modric and Kovacic will be tasked with containing their compatriot Rakitic and Iniesta in what should be a tremendous midfield tussle.
Of course, the anticipation ahead of the Clasico typically centers around the attacking players on show, but so often it’s the footholds achieved in this area of the pitch that have swung the game. Casemiro’s dogged performance in the 2-1 in at the Camp Nou in April, when he disrupted Barca’s passing patterns, was a fine example.
Without the Brazilian and without Kroos, Zidane is set to continue utilizing Kovacic and Modric in the double-pivot and it’s a partnership that’s blossomed. Both are adept on the ball and have a defensive edge to their game; Kovacic, after speculation over a summer exit, has shown he’s capable of cutting it at the highest level with some accomplished performances.
While they are both playmakers for Madrid, there’ll be an extra onus on their work off the ball on Saturday, especially with Iniesta returning. If the Los Blancos pair can hamper him on his comeback from injury and track the incisive vertical surges of Rakitic, Barcelona’s search for fluidity in their attacking play will likely be prolonged.