The talking is nearly over as the biggest club game in world football takes place this weekend at the iconic Santiago Bernabéu Stadium as Real Madrid host Barcelona in El Clasico.
Benitez Feeling the Pressure ahead of Barcelona Showdown
It’s the biggest game of the season and already it’s being billed as a potential six pointer for Real Madrid coach Rafa Benitez, as defeat would leave Los Blancos six points behind their bitter rivals even at this early stage of the season. The Spanish tactician, who cut his teeth in the youth set up at the Bernabéu, has been criticised for deploying negative tactics that until the 3-2 defeat in Sevilla on matchday 11, worked to perfection. Constant rumours of unhappy players in the dressing room have dogged Benitez since the start of the championship and he needs a victory on Saturday to silence the doubters (for now). His record against the Catalan giants is encouraging however, in 12 previous meetings as an opposition coach, his record reads W7 D1 L4 and of course, he has Cristiano Ronaldo in attack (priced at *4.33 on the best sports betting sites to open the scoring on Saturday)
Will He or Won’t He Play? Messi Keeps Us All Guessing
Two weeks ago, Lionel Messi had no chance of making the starting line-up for Barcelona on Saturday. Now it seems certain he will take his place in attack at the Bernabéu after a dramatic recovery from a knee injury which looked like keeping him sidelined until the New Year. The question now is does coach Luis Enrique need to take the gamble with him after the devastating form shown by Brazilian superstar Neymar (*2.10 on the betting exchanges to be an anytime scorer on Saturday) in his absence? Many observers will say a 75% fit Messi is a gamble worth taking but Enrique must take a more sensible approach, knowing that further damage to the knee could rule his star player out for the rest of the season. El Clasico is a game within a game; whilst it will not be a season defining match, the psychological implications are massive and Enrique knows that a six point buffer over Real Madrid even at this early juncture could be decisive.
Benitez has a full complement of players to choose from. French striker Karim Benzema has returned to the team after his injury and off field problems and looks set to start. Ronaldo took no part for his country in midweek and will be fresh for Saturday’s crunch game. Gareth Bale is likely to play alongside him and James Rodriguez behind the lone striker.
Javier Mascherano has served his suspension and returns for Barcelona. Enrique looks set to use the combative Argentinian in midfield on Saturday, as replacement for the doubtful Ivan Rakitic, with Frenchman Jeremy Mathieu playing in the centre of defence alongside Gerard Pique. All the pre-match interest will focus on whether the great Lionel Messi will start up front with Neymar and Luis Suarez.
PROBABLE STARTING XI’S
Real Madrid (4-2-3-1) Navas; Marcelo, Varane, Ramos, Danilo; Kroos, Modric; Ronaldo, Bale, Rodriguez; Benzema
Barcelona (4-3-3) Bravo; Alba, Pique, Mathieu, Alves; Busquets, Mascherano, Iniesta; Neymar, Suarez, Messi
HEAD TO HEAD
Its El Clasico number 171 in La Liga with the current standings at Real Madrid 71 wins, Barcelona 67 and 32 draws. There have been 546 goals scored in this league fixture; 278 for Los Blancos, 268 for Barcelona. The Santiago Bernabéu is a hard place to get a result, with Real having won 19 of their last 22 league games there. Last season’s corresponding fixture ended in a 3-1 home win as goals from Ronaldo, Pepe and Benzema cancelled out Neymar’s early opener for the visitors.
Real Madrid 2.50 Draw 3.75 Barcelona 2.80
*odds courtesy of Bet365
Steve Mitchell (@barafundler)