Before the start of the season, not many would have betted that Barcelona would win the La Liga ahead of bitter rivals-Real Madrid. Yet, the Blaugrana are set to do the unthinkable-win the title without losing a game and this is what Zinedine Zidane and his team would try to stop as they visit the Nou CampÂ on Sunday. Though Barcelona have celebrated the title in the streets and are just waiting to be officially crowned champions of Spain in their last match, yet, what is at stakeÂ tomorrowÂ is more than just pride
R eal Madrid can transform their own season by beating Liverpool in this month’s Champions League final, andÂ on SundayÂ they can dent Barcelona’s by becoming the first team to defeat the Catalans in La Liga.
This ‘clasico’ at Camp Nou will have minimal impact on the league, with Barca already crowned champions and Real’s passing interest in pipping Atletico to second place diminished by their ambitions in Europe.
But there is still much at stake in what Madrid’s daily newspaper Marca has billed “the clasico of honour”. It could even be argued this match will go some way to defining the seasons of these two teams.
Barca, in particular, have been careful in celebrating their domestic double, their players aware of the disappointment that lingers from their Champions League crash in the quarterfinals.
Even as they ordered pizza and slurped beer from the top of their open-top bus down Las Ramblas this week, it was noticeable how many interviews still referenced the disappointment in Rome.
“The elimination in the Champions League, it hurt us because it was unexpected,” said Barca coach Ernesto Valverde. “But it is very difficult to do what we have done and now what are we going to do? We keep trying.”
To soften the blow, Barca’s best response was to win the Copa del Rey and La Liga and finish unbeaten in the league for the first time, while hoping Real do not go all the way in the Champions League. The latter two are still to be decided.
Real’s march towards a 13th European triumph has certainly weighed heavily on Barcelona, whose sense of absence has been heightened by the progress of their rivals.
“It’s amazing to be in a Champions League final for the third time in a row and have the chance to win it for the fourth time in the last five years,” Real midfielder Toni Kroos saidÂ on Tuesday.
“It’s hard for me to find words to describe that. When it comes to the Champions League, we have extra motivation.”
Barca are looking to avoid defeat this weekend, and in their last three league games against Villarreal, Levante and Real Sociedad to seal a historic season.
But if Real snatch a victory at the Camp Nou and also see off Liverpool, perhaps the balance is tipped in their favour.
It will certainly be the last ‘clasico’ for Andres Iniesta as a player while Gareth Bale may also wave goodbye to this fixture, with the Welshman expected to consider his future at Real in the summer.
The suggestion is both teams could give the departing Iniesta, Barca’s captain, a guard of honour, even if Real refuse to do so for Barcelona’s La Liga triumph.
Bale was again a substitute against Bayern MunichÂ on Tuesday, meaning he has now started only one of Real’s six Champions League knock-out games.
Zidane has been playing Bale, and resting key players, in La Liga matches but he is not likely to field a weakened team this weekend.
Meanwhile, Barcelona defender Lucas Digne has admitted he and his teammates are desperate to avoid surrendering their unbeaten La Liga record to Real Madrid.Barca are four games away from adding a first invincible La Liga season to their domestic double but this weekend they host a Real side in form, and buoyed by their run to the Champions League final.
Digne, speaking exclusively to AFP, said finishing the campaign undefeated has now become key.”It’s that consistency, it shows the hard work of the whole group throughout the season, it’s huge,” Digne said.
“Of course, this is a record the team now wants to go for. It is important for us and we will give everything to hold on to it.”
Barca also still feel the need to atone for their Champions League collapse against Roma, which hangs over the club, despite their domestic success.
Real’s subsequent march to the final has only deepened the sense of disappointment.
“Real winning the Champions League is still hypothetical, it is not done yet,” Digne said.
“There are two sides to our season â€“ we would have hoped to go further in the Champions League and we thought we could have won it but that didn’t happen.
“The double is still something exceptional and we are still undefeated in the league. We have to remember it is still a very strong season.”
There is an undercurrent that this meeting with Real will go some way to defining how Barcelona’s season is perceived.
When it comes to El Clasico, there is no such thing as a dead rubber.
“Quite simply, it’s the biggest match in the world,” Digne said. “There is an expectation that is just amazing and a rivalry between the two clubs that goes back a very long way.
“It is felt from the supporters, to the players, to everyone. It is really a special atmosphere.”
Digne is coming to the end of his second season at Barca, having joined from Paris Saint-Germain in 2016.
He remains the No 2 to Jordi Alba at left-back but is highly thought of by coach Ernesto Valverde, with whom he enjoys a strong relationship.
“The coach has added so much to us tactically and defensively â€“ we are much stronger and the results prove it,” Digne said.
“He asks us to defend properly because we are a team that attacks a lot. We have become more balanced and harder to beat.”
Atletico Madrid, who are five points ahead of Real, host struggling EspanyolÂ on Sunday.