El Clasico has always been ‘the biggest club game in the world’ but over the last few years, the fixture seems to have taken on more significance than usual.
The political undercurrent to this one could make life a little uncomfortable but all Real Madrid will be concerned with is getting the three points to not only end Ernesto Valverde’s incredible unbeaten start to the campaign, but to bring Barcelona back towards the chasing pack.
Valverde and his players will be acutely aware that they’ve never really fared too well in the early Saturday kick-offs, and when this titanic tussle was played at 4pm local time on a Saturday back in 2013, Barca lost at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Already 11 points clear of their eternal rivals this season, the Blaugrana were 16 ahead when they travelled to Madrid for the 2013 encounter. If anything, that would suggest that form can go out of the window for this game.
Real were, in fact, the last team to beat the Catalans, a comprehensive Super Cup victory over two legs which was supposed to be the precursor to a record-breaking season for Los Blancos and one of transition for Barca.
As we’ve seen, the tables have been well and truly turned.
Though it’s fair to say that Barcelona haven’t really hit the heights yet, Valverde clearly knows what it takes to build a winning side, and his substitutions have won games on more than one occasion already in 2017/18.
Zinedine Zidane by contrast, has come up short. Bereft of the luck and 90th-minute winners he enjoyed throughout last season, Real have dropped an incredible amount of points already. Nor were they convincing in the Copa del Rey, when Fuenlabrada gave them an almighty scare.
Where he once held a position of unquestioned authority, there’s a sense that the Frenchman’s tactical naivety is now coming to the fore. Absolutely no question that he’s the right man for the dressing room, as his hold over his entire squad since he took the job has proved. And another Club World Cup success in Abu Dhabi has brought further kudos.
However, unlike Valverde, he’s been unable to affect games with a change of system or personnel. A loss for Real would be devastating at this stage and even though they would have one game in hand, depending when it’s rearranged, it could hamper rather than help Los Blancos.
The title ‘El Clasico’ may be a bit of a misnomer on this occasion as we’re likely to see more of a battle than usual. Barca are missing one or two key men, and we’ll only know how keenly Samuel Umtiti’s absence is felt at full time.
Cristiano Ronaldo has been back among the goals of late, and he does enjoying silencing the Blaugrana faithful. Do so again here, and Real will still be clinging onto their title by their fingertips.
By Jason Pettigrove
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