El Centrocampista

Crucial El Clasico

El Clasico - Ronaldo

With La Liga now firmly planted in ‘the business end of the season’, the three-horse race that has captivated audiences over the past seven months is in danger of becoming a two-horse race when Real Madrid go toe-to-toe with Barcelona in the second Clásico of the league season at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday night.

A win for Real, who are three points ahead of their arch rivals going into the fixture, would see Ancelotti’s men open up a six-point gap on the Catalans, and would in all likelihood end Barcelona’s hopes of winning a league where a deficit of that size would be nearly impossible to make up before the end of the season.

The result of football’s most famous clash usually has a huge say in whose cabinet the trophy will adorn at the end of May, but thanks to Atletico Madrid, this season is one of the tightest in recent years.

Both sides come into the fixture on the back of victories, with Barcelona trampling Osasuna 7-0 at the Nou Camp on Sunday night, and Real coming through a tricky affair with Malaga at La Rosaleda Stadium with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring the only goal in a 1-0 victory.

After losing their position at the top of the league last month, Barcelona manager Tata Martino has found himself under huge pressure, with rumours circulating this week that he is set to leave his post come the end of the season, despite his side challenging for three trophies.

It’s too early to tell whether the uncertainty surrounding Martino will have any effect on his side’s performance in the Clásico, but with the quality they have in abundance and the unpredictability that surrounds the fixture, it would be unwise to brand any of these two sides as the favourites going into the match.

Real manager Carlo Ancelotti after the win at Malaga, spoke of his side’s confidence ahead of the clash, after Los Blancos extended their unbeaten run to 31 games. Last year’s runners up now look arguably as strong as the Galactico sides of the early noughties, with Ancelotti claiming that this Real squad was the ‘best he’s ever managed’, and after a few early season hiccups, Ancelotti looks to have given Real the solidarity they were missing under José Mourinho last season.

Solidarity is not the only improvement Real have gained under Ancelotti’s stewardship; they are also unbelievably effective going forward. Despite suffering from injury problems, Gareth Bale is beginning to live up to his price tag with 10 goals in his 17 starts in the league this season. Jesé’s emergence this season may have come as a surprise to some, but the youngster plays with the level of maturity that has seen fans calling for him to start on a more regular basis.

The losses of both Mesut Özil and Gonzalo Higuain have gone relatively unnoticed.

Despite Real’s tremendous run over the past 31 games, they will no doubt be wary that after going through a shaky patch, Barcelona have started to recapture their best form, and at times during their round of 16-second leg clash against Manchester City, they demonstrated some of their brilliance to see them into the quarter finals.

Lionel Messi’s subtle dink over City goalkeeper Joe Hart was followed up with a hat trick against Osasuna at the weekend. The Argentine, who has an exemplary record for an opposition player at the Bernabeu, is the fixtures joint all-time goal scorer and will be looking to make it 19 goals in this fixture, which will surpass the record originally held by Alfredo Di Stéfano.

Taking Messi’s record at the Bernabeu into account, Real have only won one of the last five meetings in the league between the two sides on their turf, with Messi scoring in four of those fixtures.

Yet despite their impressive record against Real Madrid, Catalan concerns will be no doubt be centered around Barcelona’s recent away record in the league, as they have lost their last two games away from the Nou Camp, with 1-0 losses to both Real Sociedad and Real Valladolid.

El Clasicos are rightly always hyped affairs, but Sunday’s game could be the most important between the two for many a year and Atlético Madrid will be keeping an eagle eye on the contest, where the result is likely to go a long way in shaping the final positions of the top three.

A win for Real would almost certainly mean that the trophy is heading to Madrid.

Whether it will be with Atletico or Real would be the next conundrum to solve.




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