Clasico rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid will face off at the Camp Nou on Sunday in a matchup that has a very different look to it than seemed likely at the turn of the year. Real Madrid finished 2014 on a Spanish-record 22 match winning streak, looking like not only the dominant team in Spain, but in all of Europe. After returning from victory in the Club World Cup they would establish a four-point lead over a Barcelona side that was seemingly heading toward crisis point.
Having stuttered through the first half of the season under new coach Luis Enrique, things came to a head with a defeat to Real Sociedad at the start of January. Lionel Messi began the match on the bench and after he missed training the next day rumors swirled about a falling out with his coach. On that same day, sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta was dismissed and his assistant Carles Puyol walked out. With the club already under a transfer ban, all did not look well at the Camp Nou.
But, on the pitch, at least, that defeat has proved something of a turning point. Barcelona have failed to win just one of their 18 matches since then, in the process booking a place in the final of the Copa del Rey and on Wednesday moving in the Champions League quarterfinals after victory over Manchester City. And, perhaps most impressively, they have overturned Real Madrid’s advantage in La Liga to go into Sunday’s meeting with a one-point lead in the standings.
While defeat in the first match following the Christmas break was the signal for a turnaround for Barcelona, for Real Madrid it has proved a portent of things to come. Since their 22 match win streak, there have been five defeats in their 16 matches, including elimination from the Copa del Rey and a home defeat to Schalke in which they came perilously close to a disastrous exit in their defense of the Champions League title.
The contrasting fortunes of both clubs in recent weeks have been most evident in the fortunes of their two star-studded frontlines. While Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema have floundered, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez have found their groove to devastating effect.
It was all very different in the first half of the season. Then Madrid’s famed “BBC” was close to unstoppable, with Ronaldo the best player in the world, Benzema enjoying his finest season to date and Bale still incredibly effective and decisive in big games. Andat Barcelona, Messi still appeared half a yard short of his peak while Suarez was struggling to integrate into his new team.
Now, though, the problems are all with Madrid. While Ronaldo has become a mere mortal and Benzema’s goals have dried up, Bale has been the target of scathing criticism, both from his club’s own fans inside the Bernabeu stadium and from the intense local media. Indeed, things have gotten so bad that Bale was the subject of a spat between leading Madrid sports daily Marca and Britain’s BBC.
Madrid will hope that the most expensive signing in history will have restored at least some of his confidence with two goals in a win over Levante last weekend, but more fundamental problems remain for under pressure manager Carlo Ancelotti. With a top-heavy lineup of star names, it required a tremendous physical commitment in order for Madrid to function as a coherent team, and it is perhaps unsurprising that as some of that intensity has inevitably dropped off the team has suffered badly.
At their historic rivals, it is a very different story. To his credit, Enrique, rather than merely throwing them out there and hoping for magic to follow, has worked to get the best out of Messi, Suarez and Neymar, both individually and for the team. Last summer’s big signing from Liverpool is still showing his unselfish nature in working to open up space for those around him, but he is also now a regular scorer himself.
The shift in Barcelona’s fortunes came with the decision to move Messi back to the right-sided position in which he made his name, before his brilliance demanded that he be the central figure, figuratively and literally on the field. With that shift has come Messi’s rediscovery of his scintillating best. The Argentinean has now leapfrogged Ronaldo into top spot in the Liga scoring charts, with 32, and he now has 43 overall for the season. His performance against City on Wednesday, when Barcelona could have won by a landslide, was breathtaking. Time and again he simply embarrassed the Premier League champion’s expensively assembled team of internationals. While their finishing was lacking, Barcelona could hardly hope to be in better form ahead of a match that could go a long way to deciding the destination of the league title.
Prediction: Real Madrid showed signs of improvement last week, largely thanks to the return from long-term injury of in balancing and linking up the Madrid team. And if Toni Kroos has benefited significantly from the rest he was given last week, Madrid could be significantly stronger. Still, Barcelona have to be favorites. The Catalans still have less control than in the Pep Guardiola glory days, meaning it should once again be an open affair between the two rivals. Both teams are likely to have openings in an end-to-end contest, but the greater fluidity and confidence in Barcelona’s front three could well prove decisive.
Barcelona 2-0 Real Madrid
Kickoff time: Sunday, 4 p.m. ET.