The first El Clasico of the season is here and with Real Madrid in fourth place - 11 points behind Barcelona with a game in hand - this game isn’t technically a top-of-the-table clash. To call it a must-win game for Zinedine Zidane’s side would perhaps be an understatement. In some way, they are obliged to win considering this result could ultimately be the catalyst for the rest of their campaign and, therefore, the Frenchman’s job taking into account Florentino Perez’s impulsive history.
After what has been an inconsistent start to the season for Los Blancos where they did not win a home League game until October, they look to be returning to form. Cristiano Ronaldo’s fifth Balon d’Or seems to have given him a much-needed boost and Gareth Bale’s return from injury gives a team - who were running out of ideas too often - another option and outlet in attack.
Whether or not their Club World Cup triumph will provide Madrid with momentum or fatigue going into the Clasico remains to be seen, but captain Sergio Ramos is not shying away from the magnitude of the game for his team.
“There are no words to describe these occasions and this is sure to be another great match,” Ramos was quoted as saying. “This is the most important match in the world, bigger than any other, and due to the situation we find ourselves in, we must win the game to continue fighting for La Liga. We enter the game in a good place, having won the Club World Cup, and this is a boost on a psychological level. We are extremely keen to play as we want to make up lost ground on those above us.”
As for Barca, they enter the game six points clear at the summit of La Liga and yet they don’t seem to have totally impressed along the way. One thing that Ernesto Valverde deserves credit for is turning a defence that has looked too fragile in recent seasons into the best in Europe. There might be an over-reliance on a certain player, but given that this player is Lionel Messi, you can’t really blame them.
Luis Suarez slowly seems to be returning to form, but surprisingly the Catalans will miss the injured Paco Alcacer: whether it has been from the start or off the bench, the striker’s intelligent movement has only helped his team in attack this season. It is likely that Valverde will start Paulinho at the Bernabeu considering the Brazilian’s physicality and penchant for being in the right place at the right time.
Madrid are favourites going into this Clasico given their necessity to go for the win, and they will be feeling good after winning their fifth trophy in this calendar year for the first time in the club’s history. Nonetheless, Barca are in better form than their rivals, and even though they will miss Samuel Umtiti at the heart of the defence, they will be up for the challenge.