El Clasico: Everything you need to know about Real Madrid vs. Barcelona
Saturday's Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid is the latest in a long line of epic clashes between Spain's top two clubs. With Real holding a six-point advantage over their rivals, a win for Zinedine Zidane's side could prove decisive in the title race. Here's what you need to know.
Form guide and team news
Barcelona (WWWWDD): The hosts enter the game having been held to draws in each of their past two league games.
Real Madrid (WWWWWW): Barca's stumbles have allowed Madrid, winners of six straight in La Liga, to pull away in the title race.
As for who will play on Saturday, Barca hope to have Andres Iniesta available following a month-long absence through injury. Jordi Alba is nursing ankle and knee knocks but could yet play. The home side's formidable front three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar are all fit.
As for Real Madrid, well, one part of their attacking triumvirate will not be in action due to Gareth Bale's long-term ankle injury, though Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema are available. Midfielder Toni Kroos is also out.
Real are focused on the title
Zinedine Zidane's side are in a position they've not been in for a long time. They currently sit six points ahead of Barcelona -- they have not been further in front since 2012 and that was after El Clasico. It was also the second meeting that season, won in the spring as the season headed into the final weeks.
That night, Ronaldo's goal at the Camp Nou completed a 2-1 victory that effectively won them the title; afterwards, Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola congratulated Madrid on being league champions. That was the only league title Madrid have won in the past eight years. Too long, they know. It's been striking to the players and the manager at a club whose identity has been built through the European Cup, a competition they almost feel is their own, and one they have won twice as many times as their greatest rivals, explicitly say that the league is the priority this season.
And so, El Clasico tends to define the season; this time it might go a very long way to actually deciding it. Win and Madrid would be nine points clear, with a head-to-head advantage, too. Barcelona would have to do four games' worth of catching up. And yes, there are 25 games to go but that would be a huge gap. "A fist on the desk," Nacho called it.
Barcelona need a win to boost flagging title hopes
The Catalan side are also in a position they've not been in for a long time. They've experienced something similar(ish) from the other side a few times in recent years, but not so early in the season. When these two teams last met, everyone knew that if Barcelona won, the title race would be over. They lost 2-1 and, as it turned out, it was still over although it got mighty close.
That night, April 2, 2016, a run of 32 games without a Barcelona defeat came to an end, but they still won the league. They didn't need to win then; they need to win now. Pessimism has taken hold.
"If we win on Saturday, things will look different," Gerard Pique said. But? But "if we lose, things will become very complicated." The defender admitted: "Madrid have the luxury of being able to lose. We don't."
Luis Enrique said: "It would be over the top to kill us."
Some fear that a defeat would kill their title chances.
How are Madrid playing?
It's hard to really put your finger on it. Madrid are unbeaten in 32 games, a brilliant run whichever way you look at it, and yet some doubts linger, odd though that sounds. Ridiculous, in fact. They have rarely dominated in the spell, only occasionally really sparkled. That said, the variety and strength in depth is quite astonishing.
No other team in Europe's big five leagues is still unbeaten. They drew four games in a row, granted, but just when it seemed set to go wrong, just when it felt like maybe they were being found out, Madrid started winning again and never stopped. When the game that everyone declared a first real test came around, they passed it brilliantly, beating Atletico Madrid 3-0. They went to Atletico, the team that don't concede, and put three past them. Another hat-trick from Ronaldo.
Barca are struggling badly
Madrid's upcoming away fixtures are about as tough as it gets, offering hope that they will drop points: Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla and Celta in that order. That gives Barcelona the chance to make up ground but, with 27 points from 13 games, this is their worst start to a season since the Frank Rijkaard era.
Barca drew with Real Sociedad at the weekend and their manager even said that was a "miracle," so comprehensively had they been outplayed. After the match, Piqué talked about "attitude" and insisted: "If we play like this it will be very difficult to win the league."
That game was the worst, Luis Enrique said, but it was not really a one-off: Messi had produced a mind-bending display to pull them through against Sevilla, they had been fortunate in Valencia, they were unable to score against Málaga and they have been beaten twice. At Celta, they were overrun. Something that used to happen very rarely is being repeated now. El Clasico is an obligation, but an opportunity to. "A chance to rebel," Javier Mascherano called it.
Will Zidane go for the jugular?
It's a big decision for the Madrid boss. In the absence of one or more of the "BBC" -- Bale, Benzema and Cristiano -- he has tended to take the opportunity and add an extra midfielder, as he did so effectively against Atletico. So, with Bale out, expect something similar.
But how does the lead at the top of the table impact his decisions? Does it mean caution? A desire to ensure (in so far as you can ever ensure anything) that they do not see that lead reduced and the title race opened up? Or does it mean that he will be tempted to go for it and leave Madrid in a position about which most could have barely dreamed? In big games, he has tended to tighten up.
It's never 'just a game'
After 114 years of the biggest footballing rivalry in the world, one thing is clear: no game has what this game has in terms of sport, politics, society and identity. "Just football?" one headline ran a few years back. They knew the answer: Madrid-Barca is never just football. But the football is the best, too. So are the players: you have to go back two decades to find a FIFA World Player of the Year winner who hasn't played for Madrid or Barcelona.
This game really is Spain's derby: it's not just that government figures show that over half of all football fans here declare themselves Madid or Barcelona supporters, it's that even those who support someone else almost always support one of these two as well or at least have a non-negotiable preference for one or the other. They weren't always the biggest, but they are now. And that's not going to change.
Real's historical edge
This will be the 232nd competitive Clasico although it's only really over the past 10 years or so that they've started calling it that, a term borrowed from Argentina. It used to be the derbi.
It's pretty close, too: Barcelona have narrowed the gap in recent years but just when it looked like they might even it up, Madrid pulled away again. Madrid have won 93, Barcelona 90 and there have been 48 draws. Oh, and Madrid and Barcelona have scored 390 and 376 goals respectively.
The chances of this finishing 0-0 are slim: the last time that happened was Nov. 2002, some 39 games ago. So, that's jinxed it. Sorry.
The man in black
Well, he'll be in yellow, the supporting actor so often elevated to lead role. This time, it's Carlos Clos Gómez's turn.
Usually, the storm around the referee is decidedly ugly. Clos Gómez, curiously enough, has given both Barcelona and Real Madrid more yellow and red cards than their opponents over the games he has taken charge; there can't be many referees with a record like that. Barcelona have never lost a league game with him, in 20 games; Madrid have won the same number -- 18 -- but lost four.
These stats don't really mean anything,
The return of Iniesta
Enrique would have liked him to play some minutes in the Copa del Rey in Alicante this week but he was suspended. He is, though, training fully with his teammates and his manager says he is "fully fit," so it seems likely he will play his 34th clasico: more than anyone else, ever. They have missed him; that midfield looks very different with him in it.
"We have missed him muchísimo," Sergi Roberto said. "He is pure Barcelona." The Barcelona that some have missed of late? After all, Iniesta doesn't just play; he makes others play too. Over the past two years he has become a kind of combined Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, the Barca legend with whom he combined so well for so long in midfield.
"He has the same ability as Xavi to keep the ball but he also has the ability to go past people," Enrique says. "Pure magic", his manager called him. As for Piqué, arguably Barcelona's outstanding player this season, he insists that, "relax, I'll be there."
Don't forget the benches
Barcelona spent over €100 million on strength in depth: of their five recent signings, only one (Umtiti) was really seen as a starter but so far, it hasn't worked. At Madrid, meanwhile, 19 different players have scored this season: of the outfield players, only the injured Casemiro and curious case Fabio Coentrao have not got goals. They have had injuries -- of the team that started the Champions League final in May, only Dani Carvajal has not suffered an injury this season and he suffered on that night -- and yet they have overcome them all. Sometimes, in fact, they have even looked better.
Will they miss Bale, out for at least the next two months? Of course they will. Only they have done a good job of not missing anyone. Casemiro was the one they thought they would miss most, the man with no replacement. But after an uneven start, Mateo Kovacic has stepped up.
Enrique vs. Zidane
"We've got the best squad since I have been here... but we're still stuck with the same lump as a manager," Enrique said. The knives are out, that's for sure. But then there's always been a slightly odd sense that people don't trust him. He has been here before and, he said, "you all ended up climbing on the bandwagon." In 2014-15, it was a treble-winning bandwagon. The following season came a double-winning one.
As for Zidane, the victory over Atlético was very much his success. Tactically, he surprised everyone with Isco just behind Ronaldo and read it right: at last, a Madrid derby where they weren't outnumbered in midfield. Until then, most assumed that Zidane -- soft, smiling, smooth, serene Zidane -- was good with the group but maybe not much of a coach despite winning the European Cup. Now, it seems he has won almost all of them over. 32 games, remember. Top of the table. A European trophy.
Statistically, it's the best start to a managerial career that anyone has ever had in Spain. Forza Football ran a poll this week: Is Zidane a lucky guy or tactical genius? The latter won, 73-27.
Players to watch? Try all of them
No game on the planet has this much talent -- even without Bale, even if Iniesta doesn't start in the end, even with Alvaro Morata and Toni Kroos still injured. Isco's position will be especially interesting; will he be entrusted with a key role again? And will it be in what Zidane calls his "natural position," No. 10, one that normally doesn't exist in Madrid's set-up?
If Iniesta doesn't play, that "other" midfielder will be under pressure to perform. Who will it be? Andre Gomes, Arda Turan or Rafinha? Denis Suarez is the player who appears best suited to their style, and best able to support Sergio Busquets in midfield. But no one has been as decisive as Rafinha, whether winning the ball back or scoring goals. For Madrid, Luka Modric's return is cause for celebration.
But don't forget those two
Forgive the stating-the-bleeding-obvious answer, the men to watch are clearly Ronaldo and Messi, the embodiment of their clubs for so long now. And they still are.
The constituency is incredible, really. Ronaldo first came to Madrid in 2009. Seven years and 26 clasicos have passed since then. Plenty of players have been and gone, too: fourteen of those who started his first clasico are no longer around. Stars have come: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Bale, Neymar, James Rodriguez, Suárez, Isco. And they have had had an impact: Ibrahimovic scored the winner in Ronaldo's first Clasico, Bale got that Copa del Rey final goal, Suárez scored the winner last year.
Yet no one has had an impact like Ronaldo and Messi. No one has managed to eclipse them.
Last year for the first time, it looked like something was shifting: arguably, Suárez was La Liga Player of the Year and Bale seemed to be becoming Madrid's most decisive footballer. But here we are again. Them, again. Men who have marked an era, scoring just short of 600 La Liga goals between them. Top scorers in their clubs' histories, two of the three top scorers in clasico history, too -- Alfredo Di Stéfano stands between Messi, in first with 21 goals, and Ronaldo, in third with 16 -- and the top two scorers in this league the season too.
And so it goes on.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.