Real Madrid against Barcelona. El Clásico. The biggest club fixture in the world between two behemoths of the football world. Both sides are home to some of the best talent but this is a game that encompasses so much more than just football.
The fixture between the two earlier in the season at the Camp Nou was postponed by two months due to social unrest in Catalonia, following the jailing of political leaders in the region. Sunday evening’s clash will go ahead as planned with all the headlines this time focused on what happens on the pitch.
This is a match which will shape the remaining three months of the campaign for both clubs. With 13 matches remaining in the league season, Barcelona hold a slender two-point advantage over Zinedine Zidane’s side. This fixture is potentially decisive for La Liga odds.
Madrid – who had lost just once in 21 games between late September and early February, have now lost three of their last five. Los Blancos exited the Copa del Rey after conceding four at home to Real Sociedad, they were held at home by struggling Celta de Vigo before an even more damaging result – a loss at Levante. Their European hopes now also hang by a thread, having lost 2-1 at home to Manchester City in the first leg of their Champions League Round of 16 tie this week.
This has rekindled memories of this time last season, when in the space of a week Madrid lost at home to Barcelona twice – in the Copa del Rey and La Liga – before being humiliated with a 4-1 loss at home to Ajax in the Champions League. With seven traumatic days, their season was extinguished with three months remaining and Zinedine Zidane soon returned to replace incumbent Coach Santiago Solari.
The front pages of Friday’s Spanish sports papers highlighted the ‘panic’ (Catalan-based El Mundo Deportivo) for Los Blancos, with Marca adding that Madrid go into this El Clasico ‘without a safety net’ and with their ‘season on the line’.
Barcelona go into the encounter with fragile confidence. They have won four league games on the bounce to re-find the summit of La Liga, while their 1-1 draw at Napoli in the Champions League was generally viewed as a positive result. However, they too are out of the Copa and generally are not viewed as being among the favourites to land Europe’s premier club competition this time round. Quique Setien replaced Ernesto Valverde at the helm last month and they have won just two of their last seven away games in all competitions – one of which was at unconvincing triumph at third tier UD Ibiza.
A crisis is never far away at either of these two sporting institutions and defeat here would be the ultimate catalyst for the media going into overdrive and excessive hyperbole about the state of play. The points are absolutely crucial, but Sunday’s meeting at the Santiago Bernabeu is about much more and it will set the narrative for the remainder of the campaign.