A title-deciding El Clasico?
A midweek of contrasting Champions League fortunes for both sides can only serve to give both Real Madrid and Barcelona extra incentive going into El Clasico at the Santiago Bernabeu this Sunday.
With La Liga leaders Real Madrid advancing to the UCL semifinals, they’ll be spurred on to go on and achieve a Champions League and league double for the first time since 1958.
After Barcelona’s exit from the continental stage, they’ll want to hold onto their hopes of a third successive La Liga title as well as a third successive league and Copa del Rey double (which would be a first in Spanish football).
Apart from its glamour and the prestige that it holds, El Clasico usually gets mass attention as a key fixture in terms of shaping the destiny of the La Liga title, especially when it’s late in the season like this one is.
This is due to the sheer dominance these sides have enjoyed in the league. These old rivals have finished in the top two of La Liga in seven of the last eight seasons, with one of them being the champion in 11 of the last 12 (Atletico Madrid finishing first in 2013-14 providing each exception).
While their current league positions are as close as most seasons gone by, this season suggests that the standard of what it takes to top La Liga has gone up slightly from last year. Real Madrid’s points per game average this season (2.42) is a bit more than what was needed to win the title last season (Barcelona’s rate of 2.39).
Under Zinedine Zidane, Real Madrid look stronger in the league than they’ve been for a while. With 75 points after 31 La Liga games, it’s the most points they’ve had at this stage of the season for five years.
For Barcelona, the opposite seems true in Luis Enrique’s final season in charge. With 72 points after 32 La Liga games, this is the least points the Catalans have had at this stage for nine years.
They go into Sunday’s clash close enough in the league table for the game to possibly bring about a positional switch at the top. A Barcelona win would result in them overtaking Real Madrid (they’d be level on points but with superior head-to-head record in the season).
Los Blancos would still have a game in hand, but sitting in second place with a month to go would certainly create much more pressure going into the final month of the season.
Conversely, a Real Madrid win would set up a 6-point lead over the defending champions with a game in hand, which would alter the title-winning odds to be almost overwhelmingly in their favour.
For Barcelona to keep their challenge up, they’ll have to end their trend suffering high profile away losses this season. Against other elite European opposition in the Champions League, they’ve lost 3-1 against Manchester City, 4-0 against PSG and the 3-0 loss last week against Juventus.
The last couple of months has certainly brought its fair share of disappointment for Barcelona. In all competitions since March, they’ve lost three games (which is as many as Real Madrid have lost the whole season).
However, if the old adage that ‘form goes out the window’ is true for a game like this, Barcelona will take comfort from recent memories of not just winning this fixture, but winning it convincingly.
In the last nine seasons, Barcelona have won three El Clasico matches by four goals or more, including their 4-0 win away from home last season (which pretty much ended Rafa Benitez’s reign at the Bernabeu).
Barcelona have kept up their scoring consistency throughout the years against the current European champions. Blaugrana have scored in 22 consecutive El Clasico matches, which is a record in the history of the fixture.
If Barcelona come into this fixture with a recent history of scoring heavily, Real Madrid come into it in unprecedented current scoring form.
Real Madrid have scored in 55 consecutive matches in all competitions, which is a record run by any La Liga team.
In La Liga alone, they’ve scored in 43 consecutive La Liga games. Only Barcelona can boast a longer record than that (64 consecutive games ending in 2013).
While on the subject of scoring records, it wouldn’t be a modern El Clasico without intense focus on the feats of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, two men that have shared the last nine Ballon d’Or awards.
Lionel Messi leads the way with the most El Clasico goals of all time (21), but since he scored a hat-trick at the Bernabeu in 2014, he’s gone 6 matches against Real Madrid without scoring, which is his worst run against Los Blancos.
Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored the winner last time Real Madrid won this fixture, is five behind Messi with 16 El Clasico goals and needs two more to match the mark of Alfredo di Stefano for the most goals for Real Madrid in this fixture.
Out of all the eye-popping feats that Messi and Ronaldo have achieved, both will be looking at Sunday’s game with the sole aim to improve the same area of their record. Messi will want to stay in the hunt for his ninth La Liga title and Ronaldo will be focused on getting closer to his second.