The first Clasico of the season couldn’t come at a more interesting time.
Barcelona have hit a particularly bad patch of form and trail Real Madrid by six points, having held that advantage over them earlier in the season. The only win that the Catalan giants have picked up in their last four games came away to Celtic. Thoroughly dominated, they were lucky to escape Real Sociedad with a point in their last La Liga match.
Luis Enrique called it the worst display of his entire reign. He wasn’t exaggerating.
But it’s better to put in that inadequate shift against Sociedad than Madrid – the league leaders wouldn’t show any mercy. They’ve been in banging form lately and if Barcelona haven’t taken that substandard performance as a wake-up call, they’ll get the equivalent of an air horn in the ear when they host Zinedine Zidane’s team. They haven’t been beaten in 32 games.
Zidane’s unbeaten run is especially impressive when one considers how they’ve suffered with injuries this season. Cristiano Ronaldo, Keylor Navas and Karim Benzema have all missed patches of the campaign. Now all three are fit but Toni Kroos and Gareth Bale won’t be available until the new year. A boost for Los Blancos will be the return of screening midfielder Casemiro.
Barcelona haven’t managed to dodge injury problems of their own. The most notable absentee on Saturday will be Andres Iniesta. Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano face a race against the clock to be fit for the game. Combine these issues with the fact that they’ve been using Sergi Roberto as an auxiliary right-back and Barca look vulnerable. At least Samuel Umtiti will be available. Whether he’s ready for this test is another matter entirely.
Barcelona XI: Ter Stegen, Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Digne, Busquets, Rakitic, Rafinha, Messi, Neymar, Suarez
Real Madrid XI: Navas, Carvajal, Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo, Modric, Casemiro, Kovacic, Vazquez, Ronaldo, Benzema