It may only be the first week of December, but Barcelona could find its hopes of a third consecutive La Liga title effectively dashed at the hands of its bitter rival on Saturday. The Catalans will welcome Real Madrid to the Camp Nou trailing Zinedine Zidane’s side by six points at the top of the Primera Division table. In a league where Spain’s top two drop precious few points, a nine-point gap even with nearly two-thirds of the season still to play would present an unenviable task to overcome.
But getting a win in El Clásico to close the gap on Real Madrid also appears a sizable hurdle for Barcelona currently. Luis Enrique’s outfit has been held to draws in its last two league outings against Malaga and Real Sociedad. And there was no respite in the Copa del Rey in midweek, either, when a much-changed team could only draw 1-1 with third-tier Hércules.
The club’s once devastating front three has appeared a lot more human in recent weeks, with Luis Suarez scoring just once in his last five appearances and Neymar just once in his last seven. Meanwhile, Paco Alcacer, signed in the summer, to provide backup to the famed front three, again failed to get off the mark for his new club in midweek. Much of the burden has fallen upon Lionel Messi, who has led the team with 19 goals in all competitions.
What’s more, in the 1-1 draw at Real Sociedad, Barcelona, once the kings of possession, lost the possession battle for the first time this season. The loss of Andres Iniesta for the past month has been keenly felt. It is hugely positive news, then, that the World-Cup-winning midfielder is back in contention for El Clásico.
On the injury front, at least, Barcelona may even have an advantage. It was already known that Gareth Bale would not feature on Saturday after suffering an ankle injury last week. But there are now reports that the Welsh forward could face even longer, up to four months, on the sidelines. He will be joined on Real Madrid’s injury list on Saturday by midfielder Toni Kroos. However, defensive midfielder Casemiro could be in line to make a return.
Even without the Brazilian, Real Madrid has won its last six league games and is only a single point short of the pace set by the club in the 2011-12 season, when it set a record of 100 points.
As well as impressive form, Madrid also goes into Saturday’s game with a perhaps surprisingly impressive recent record at the Camp Nou. In its last eight visits to the Catalan cathedral, Real Madrid has walked away victorious on four occasions.
The performances of Real Madrid’s star man have played a significant role in that strong record. Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 10 goals in his 12 Clásico’s at the Camp Nou. And after an unusually quiet start to this campaign, the three-time Ballon d’Or winner has been firing again in recent weeks. Ronaldo has found the net eight times in his last six appearances.
Prediction: Barcelona will be entering the game at one of the lowest ebbs since Luis Enrique took charge two-and-a-half years ago. Yet there is always the potential for Messi, Neymar and Suarez to suddenly click back to their frightening best, while a fit Iniesta would provide a similarly big boost. And, while its results have been mighty impressive, Real Madrid’s performances have not always been nearly so convincing.
What the team has been, though, is more solid of late. And the successful game plan adopted recently in a 3-0 derby win over Atlético Madrid could provide a blueprint for the Clásico. That would mean Isco coming into the team as a No. 10 and the abandonment of the team’s traditional 4-3-3. That should make the team more solid and could help Madrid claim what would be a welcome share of the points.
Predicted Score: Barcelona 1-1 Real Madrid
Kickoff Time: 10:15 a.m. EST