Barcelona, Madrid Play for Pride 


• As Zidane hopes to break El-Clasico jinx

Club football returns this weekend after the international break with the world’s biggest game today when Barcelona host Real Madrid in final league El Clásico of the season. Ordinarily an El Clasico at the time of the season should have gone for a La Liga title decider, but it would not be so today as Barcelona are already a runaway leader having established a nine-point lead between them and second placed Atletico and 10 points separates them from arch rival, Real Madrid. Therefore, the pressure that usually characterizes the El Clasico might not be witnessed in today’s encounter as both teams would be playing just for pride. However, there is an interesting twist to the game-The last four coaches of Madrid have always lost their first El Clasico, and Zinadine Zidane would be very much conscious of this and would want to break the jinx. The race for the pichichi would also add spice to the encounter. It is no doubt a game for the neutrals to enjoy


 he 231st El Clasico will take place at Camp Noutonight when Barcelona welcome Real Madrid in La Liga.The home side, which are closing on another league crown, will enter the match 10 points clear of third-place Real Madrid and on the back of a 39-game unbeaten run in all competitions.

Real Madrid have also not won a league match at Camp Nou since April 2012 and Los Blancos will have revenge on their mind having taken a 4-0 thumping in the reverse clash at the Bernabeu earlier this season.

With just eight games left to play in Spain’s top flight, Barcelona currently boast a nine-point lead at the top of the table. That gap would become six if Atletico Madrid beat Real Betis in today’s early kickoff, but it is going to take some effort from Atletico or third-place Real Madrid to prevent Barcelona from holding on to their league crown.

Luis Enrique’s side were held to a 2-2 draw at Villarreal in their last league match before the international break, but that result stretched their unbeaten run in all competitions to 39 matches. They have not tasted defeat in any match since the start of October and are well on course to challenge for another treble in the final weeks of the campaign.

Thirty La Liga matches have brought 24 wins, while they have only lost on two occasions. They are the second-highest scorers (86) behind Real Madrid (87) and also have the second-best defensive record (24) behind Atletico (14). Much of their success has again been down to Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, but it has been another team effort from the Catalan giants, who have arguably surpassed Pep Guardiola’s famous Barcelona side.

The league leaders have gone 22 league games in a row at Camp Nou without suffering a defeat – recording 20 wins in the process. They have also lost just one of their last seven at home to Real Madrid in the league.

Today will also see a special tribute to Johan Cruyff, who passed away last week following a battle with cancer. The Dutchman represented Barcelona as a player between 1973 and 1978, before managing the Catalan side between 1988 and 1996. At the helm, Cruyff led the Spanish giants to four La Liga titles and the 1992 European Cup.

The ‘Gracias Johan’ mosaic will take place before kickoff and there will also be an applause in the 14th minute to mark the passing of the legend. Tributes have poured in throughout the last few days and it will be an emotional night for those involved. As a player, Cruyff won the Ballon d’Or three times and was one of the most famous exponents of Total Football.

Barcelona might well have one eye on a Champions League quarter-final against Atletico Madrid next week, but defeat against Real Madrid could well blow the title race wide open. Enrique’s side still have a lot of room for manoeuvre in the final weeks though.

While Barcelona are in the hunt for another treble, Real Madrid’s season could well be defined by the Champions League. An 11th European Cup might well soften the blow of another disappointing league campaign, but the fact that Los Blancos have won just one La Liga crown since the 2007-08 season will be a huge concern to president Florentino Perez.

Real Madrid do have 32 La Liga titles to Barcelona’s 23, but they have had to watch Barcelona and Atletico share the trophy in recent seasons. Carlo Ancelotti was unable to wrestle the crown from Camp Nou andZinedine Zidane will surely fail this time around. It is not as if the Madrid giants have been well off the pace in the league, with only four defeats from their 30 matches bringing them a respectable total of 66 points at this stage of the campaign.

It does appear that the title will be beyond them for another campaign, but the supporters will be desperate to finish above Atletico, who currently sit one spot and one point above their rivals. Real Madrid have actually won their last four in the league, which is their best run with Zidane in charge. Since losing 1-0 at home to Atletico at the end of February, the Whites have beaten Levante, Celta Vigo and Las Palmas, before thumping Sevilla 4-0 last time out.

Injuries have hurt Real Madrid in recent months, but with Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema back to join the league’s top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo in the final third, it is starting to look a lot healthier for the Madrid club. Indeed, their fixture list also looks very healthy as they prepare to face Eibar, Getafe and Rayo Vallecano in three of their next four in Spain’s top flight.

Zidane has also been able to have the likes of Benzema and Bale at the club’s training ground during the international break and his team also have one day more than Barcelona to prepare for their Champions League quarter-final. With respect to Wolfsburg, it was a favourable draw for Los Blancos and the season could still bring European success.

Sevilla, Barcelona, Villarreal and Atletico are the four teams to have beaten Real Madrid in the league this season and they have only won two of their last six with Barcelona in all competitions. Beating the so-called smaller teams in La Liga has not been a problem for the Madrid giants over the last couple of seasons, but their record against the bigger sides has rightly been called into question. Today will provide the perfect opportunity to save some face.

Barcelona defender Jeremy Mathieu could miss the remainder of the season after suffering a serious knee injury while on international duty with France, butGerard Pique and Javier Mascherano are both fit to feature.

Enrique will however have to assess the fitness of Suarez, Neymar, Messi and Dani Alves, who travelled back from South America following international duty.

Andres Iniesta was not called into the latest Spain squad after suffering with a slight muscular problem, but the midfielder is expected to start alongside Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic in Enrique’s strongest XI this weekend.

As for Madrid, Zidane’s main call is expected to come in midfield, where Brazilian Casemiro is favourite to start ahead of Isco and James Rodriguez, who have struggled to impress under the Frenchman.

Sergio Ramos returned early from Spain duty after complaining of a back problem, but the Los Blancos skipper is expected to start alongside Pepe, who came through international duty with Portugal free from injury.

Benzema and Bale are both expected to join Ronaldo in the final third, leaving the likes of Lucas Vasquez andJese Rodriguez in reserve.

Head To Head

• Today will be the 231st El Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid and 171 of those matches have taken place in La Liga. Real Madrid are just shading the overall head-to-head with 71 league victories to Barcelona’s 68, while

• Real Madrid have scored 278 goals to Barcelona’s 272.

Barcelona have actually won four of the last six matches between the two teams in all competitions, however, and have lost just one of their last seven home league games against Real Madrid – winning five times in the process. That run of form included a 2-1 victory when the pair met at Camp Nou in the corresponding league match last season.

• The two teams have, of course, also already met in the league this season and it was an incredible night for Barcelona, who recorded a 4-0 victory at the Bernabeu. Suarez scored twice in the clash back in November, which played a key role in Rafael Benitezlosing his job with Los Blancos.