Real Madrid vs Barcelona: LaLiga El Clásico match preview, team news
Real Madrid are on a run of five straight wins in the Clásico, but host a resurgent Barcelona who are unbeaten in their last 11 games.
There’s honour at stake, and when it comes to the Clásico, that’s no trifling matter. But today’s clash between Real Madrid and Barcelona is highly unlikely to be where the title was won and lost. Barça missed that boat under Ronald Koeman. And since appointing Xavi Hernández, the Blaugrana are no more than level-pegging with Madrid: they’ve picked up 33 points in 14 league games, to Los Blancos’ 36 in 15. To overhaul their arch rivals at the top of the table, Barça would need an almost utopian combination of results: they’d need to beat Madrid today (and by more than one goal if possible, to claim the head-to-head advantage), win their rearranged match against Rayo Vallecano, and pick up every point going after that. On top of that, they’d need Madrid to lose three out of the nine games they have left, having suffered just two defeats all season. So, realistically, Barça are playing to bring joy to their fans, to boost their pursuit of a Champions League place, and to send out a message that, after 11 games without loss, they’re back, and back to stay.
January signings have added punch to Barcelona attack
Barça can take two chief positives from a season to forget: their youth set-up has held up its end of the bargain, and their January signings have had an immediate effect. These two factors explain the Catalans’ climb up the table in the last three months. Since Xavi’s arrival, almost a third of Barça’s goals have been scored by mid-season recruits (seven by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, five by Ferran Torres and one by Dani Alves). It’s worth remembering that Koeman’s first forward line this season was Antoine Griezmann, Memphis Depay and Martin Braithwaite. The first was offloaded and the other two are now peripheral figures. Under Xavi, Barça’s goal average is close to two per game, compared to 1.3 during Koeman’s tenure, while the team’s stats are about the same, or in fact worse, when it comes to possession, passes and shots on target. There can be no doubt, then: club president Joan Laporta has signed attacking bite.
That said, the January transfer window doesn’t explain everything. In opposition to Laporta’s recommendations, Xavi pardoned Ousmane Dembélé, who has supplied seven assists since December and has proved crucial. The winger wants to close out his career at the club in style. Barça have also been able to welcome back Pedri, who Koeman was unable to call upon this season due to injury. While Xavi has given youth products their chance, leading him to use as many as 33 Barça players in total in the 24 games he has overseen, Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti has turned to the academy very little. Miguel Gutiérrez and Antonio Blanco disappeared from view a while ago, and Peter Federico has had just the nine minutes. Looking at Madrid’s results, it’s not as if they’ve needed them.
Real Madrid on form against top opposition
One of Madrid’s strengths this season is that they’ve been unstoppable against big-name opposition. Their defeat at the Parc des Princes was their only loss thus far this term in such a match-up. They came back in the second leg against PSG, beat Inter home and away, and have won all their games against the five teams directly behind them in LaLiga. Recent Clásico history is also on their side, as they’ve won the last five against Barça, in what is their second-longest victorious run in the fixture (the longest came back in the period between 1962 and 1965). To an extent, they’ve got the fatigue factor on their side, too. Although Madrid’s game time has been focused on a smaller group of players, Barça had to play a Europa League last-16 decider against Galatasaray on Thursday.
No Benzema for Madrid as Ancelotti plays it safe
Also pointing in Madrid’s favour are most of this season’s critical LaLiga stats: they create more opportunities, score more goals, concede fewer goals, are better at set pieces, lose possession less frequently, circulate the ball more quickly and win more duels. Barça only beat Madrid on possession and ball recoveries. Much of Los Merengues’ attacking success is down to Karim Benzema, who has participated in 63% of their league goals. He has scored eight and provided four assists in the last five games. A machine. So with Benzema not in the team, because Ancelotti has opted not to risk it, Madrid’s attack is a considerably less daunting proposition. They don’t have anyone who can adequately replace him. In the seven games the striker has missed, the coach has tried five players in his place - Luka Jovic, Mariano Díaz, Gareth Bale, Isco and Marco Asensio - and none have managed to score when filling in for the 34-year-old. But Ancelotti will have to make do with one of them today. Asensio, with Rodrygo Goes on the right, appears to be the most likely option. They’ll line up alongside Vinícius Júnior, who has returned to his best amid complaints from the club over the degree of impunity enjoyed by his markers.
Left-back Ferland Mendy is also unavailable to Madrid today, with Nacho Fernández set to deputise for him once more. As against PSG, Nacho can be expected to switch positions with David Alaba depending on how the game pans out. The Austrian will begin at centre-back and if things aren’t going well, will move out to the left. Luka Modric will start, completing a tried-and-tested midfield trio together with Casemiro and Toni Kroos, and all the indications are that Asensio will spearhead the attack in between Rodrygo and Vinícius.
Who will play up front for Barcelona?
Xavi has more cards to play, but having turned the issue over and over, it appears his ideal engine room is Pedri, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong. The question marks surround the forward line. He could go for his headline trio, Dembélé, Aubameyang and Ferran, or he could replace the Frenchman with Adama Traoré. Or even go with a fourth midfielder, Gavi, whose rate of fouls committed is higher than Casemiro’s (one every 37 minutes to the Brazilian’s one every 45). On the bench, Xavi will have more to pick from than Ancelotti: Nico, Gavi, Dembélé or Adama, Depay and even Luuk de Jong, who has scored five goals despite having a DNA very different to Barça’s.
A win for Real Madrid would as good as seal the title. A draw, even. A victory for Barcelona would leave Culés looking hard at those long-odds permutations.