The football world will come to a screeching halt to witness the 244th clash between these elite clubs. Lionel Messi is arguably the best player of his generation and he is the highest goal scorer in El Clasico encounters, tallying himself 26 goals.
The Argentine maestro will travel with his Barcelona teammates to the Spanish capital with the intent to topple the most decorated club in European history, which boasts 13 UEFA Champions League titles but have succumbed to Barcelona’s class in four of the last five seasons in La Liga.
These Spanish giants both have difficult ties in the UEFA Champions League in midweek and will want to come away with favourable first leg results and keep themselves in the hunt for UEFA Champions League glory, before their focus switches back to La Liga where Real Madrid squandered a two-point lead over a two-week period by drawing 2-2 with Celta Vigo and losing 1-0 to Levante, and now trail Barcelona by a slender one point.
Real Madrid 5/4
Real Madrid were in free-fall last season after losing undoubtedly their best player in Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus and manager Zinedine Zidane resigning. Zidane is back this season and replaced Ronaldo with former Chelsea talisman Eden Hazard and promising young Brazilian prospects Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior.
Los Blancos were unlucky with injuries to key players earlier this season and struggled to find consistency with the amount of new talent that needed time to gel in their new surroundings.
Hazard is the most influential forward that Real Madrid possess and the Belgian wizard started showing signs with his performances as to why many rate him as the third best player in the world before succumbing to an injury against PSG In November. He fully recovered after two months on the side-lines from a micro fracture in his ankle to play 60 minutes at Levante last week, but hobbled off with a fractured right ankle.
While Hazard is terribly unlucky with injuries, his teammates have to score goals and win games without him. One player in particular who is very capable is veteran striker Karim Benzema who has stepped up with 18 goals and eight assists across all competitions. It’s not the same insane level of Ronaldo but Zidane is a big Benzema fan and regularly plays the 32-year old Frenchman ahead of 60 million Euros signing Luka Jovic who is 10 years his junior.
Federico Valverde has been a revelation in midfield. The 21-year old has incredible vision, composure and desire to compete at the highest level. At times, he has forced his manager to bench either Luka Modric or Toni Kroos in order to play the Uruguayan youngster.
Brazilian Casemiro is one of the most underrated players in the world that plays in the crucial deeper lying midfield role which he dominates with captain Sergio Ramos backing him up next to Raphael Varane in central defence. Valverde and Modric or Kroos in the heart of the team to create chances for Benzema.
All the above players are amazing to watch when they are attacking at full tilt but one of the key aspects to Real’s resurgence this season has been defence. Zidane’s team boast the best record in the league with only 17 goals conceded in 25 matches. Thibaut Courtois has come in for heavy criticism after his howler against Levante which is regularly an easy save by Belgium’s number ones’ standards.
There hasn’t been much of a title race with Barcelona running away with the league in recent seasons but this campaign is different, we are set for a thrilling end to La Liga. This match could very well be the crucial league-deciding match where Barca could open up a four-point gap with the victory en-route to lifting another title or Real Madrid regaining momentum with a win at home.
Barcelona have also suffered injuries to key players this season. The best striker in the world, Luis Suarez, is recovering from knee surgery and won’t be available for four months, while Ousmane Dembele is expected to miss out for six months after undergoing surgery on a hamstring injury.
These injuries forced Barcelona to sign an emergency striker in Martin Braithwaite outside the transfer window last week. The Danish striker signed from relegation-threatened Leganes and bagged himself two assists on debut.
Jordi Alba is also touch and go after suffering a groin strain two weeks ago. La Masia academy graduate Junior Firpo has been deputising in his absence. New manager Quique Setien will be sweating on the fitness of Alba, his experience and recovery speed will be needed to contain the likes of Gareth Bale on the flanks.
Antoine Griezmann is struggling to replicate the form he produced at Atletico Madrid. He’s only scored one goal in La Liga from Barcelona’s 15 in 2020. He will be hoping to endear himself to the Barca faithful by scoring an eighth career goal against Real Madrid.
All these struggles and Lionel Messi continues to show his class. Emphatically scoring four goals last time out in the 5-0 win against Eibar. His form is unbelievable and new manager Setien who took over from Ernesto Valverde has been blessed with a team that has won five times and lost once in six La Liga matches since taking over in January. Not bad for a team that required an “emergency striker” signing.
Youngster Ansu Fati, another La Masia academy graduate has been impressive since making his senior team debut contributing to four league goals and holds the record for the youngest player to score in the Champions League at 17-years and 40 days. Expect him to come on for a cameo appearance.
Arthur Melo is a silky-smooth player with the composure and first touch of Andres Iniesta, he will run the midfield alongside Frenkie De Jong, Ivan Rakitic and the evergreen Sergio Busquets. Arthur and De Jong are the future of Barca at 22 and 23 years of age, but the experience in the pair of 31-year olds, Busquets and Rakitic, are invaluable and is the key to the amount of chances Griezmann and Messi get in the opposition half.
Real Madrid: 4-3-3
Courtois; Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Mendy; Casemiro, Kroos, Valverde; Bale, Isco, Benzema.
Ter Stegen; Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Alba; De Jong, Busquets, Arthur; Rakitic; Messi, Griezmann.
Prediction: Barcelona Win & Both Teams to Score (34/10)
Messi is in red hot form at the moment and it will be difficult for this Madrid team to outscore Barcelona. This game will be nothing like the goalless draw in the reverse fixture. Barca have only kept three clean sheets from 15 games on their travels but have scored the league’s highest 62 goals that has helped them to the summit of the league table. Madrid have to take the onus to open up and attack in front of home support as they are the ones that are trying to close the gap at the top.
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