Barcelona welcomes a beleaguered Real Madrid to the Camp Nou for the first El Clasico of the season and a victory for the Catalans would consolidate their place at the top of the La Liga table, although it could be a hard task without Leo Messi who will miss the game with a broken arm. A defeat for Real would almost certainly mean that Julien Lopotegui would be relieved of his duties as head coach
After initially struggling, it seems that Barca has found their rhythm at home and in Europe. Last weekend, Barca returned to the top of the table with a comfortable 4-2 win over Sevilla, whilst a 2-0 win over Inter Milan midweek ensured that Ernesto Valverde’s side maintained a perfect start in the Champions League. Questions remain about the defensive stability of the side, although the recent form of keeper Marc-André ter Stegen has been impressive and could prove to be a match winner for the Blaugrana.
Much of the pre-match build-up has been dominated by the absence of Messi who is ruled out with a broken arm. Rafinha is the likely candidate to replace the Barca captain on Sunday evening.
Valverde opted for the Brazilian midweek against Inter Milan, and his gamble worked out as the attacking midfielder scored the opening goal in the 2-0 victory.
Real Madrid are however are in the depths of a poor run of form that could cost head coach Julian Lopotegui his job. For all intensive purposes, the former Spain coach is a dead man walking, with management at the club weighing up potential suitors before releasing Lopotegui of his duties.
Last time out, Real cruised to a routine 2-1 victory over Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League. However, it is the winless run in five league games that has got Los Blancos in trouble. It’s the side’s worse start to a season in 17 years.
Part of the problem is that Real simply did not invest after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, the clubs all-time leading goalscorer and the supplier of some 50 goals a season for the side.
The return of striker Mariano Diaz to the club the only signing of note in the summer, simply put he is not the quality to match up to Ronaldo and as a result Real have suffered. While most of the blame should fall squarely at Real President Florentino Perez, it would seem that Lopotegui will get the boot for his role in the malaise.
Lopetegui said it was the happiest day of his life being named coach of Real Madrid but he could not have imagined this. Four and a half months, 138 days, nine La Liga games. One defeat at Camp Nou on Sunday and that might well be that.
If Florentino Perez’s mind is already made up, the result against Barcelona may not matter. A draw, or even a Madrid win, is not beyond the realm of possibility. After all, this game rarely has much respect for form and Lionel Messi is injured.
“It’s a great game for us in this moment because we have no choice but to stand up,” Toni Kroos told AFP this week. “We have to show how good we are against a difficult opponent and I think we can do it.”
A surprise success would make sacking Lopetegui harder to justify but five games without a win, more than eight hours without a goal, these are not quickly forgotten either.
There were disgruntled whistles at fulltime on Tuesday, the home fans deflated after watching a team that featured UEFA’s best goalkeeper, defender and player hang on for a 2-1 victory over Viktoria Plzen.
After the match, Lopetegui talked about turning points and changing dynamics but his demeanour perhaps betrayed the truth. “I don’t often smile anyway,” he said. Madrid’s chaotic performance had weakened his position, not strengthened it.
Isco insisted on Monday that if they fire the coach, they should fire the players too. Lopetegui might have added the one the club did let go last summer took an average of 50 goals a season with him.
Players though are never accountable – certainly not ones crowned European champions only five months ago – and He instils confidence, which leads to creativity and precision. He also sets the rules and for some, perhaps Perez included, this team has been indulged for too long.
For their part, the players might argue they have struggled before and come through, not least under Zinedine Zidane last season.
“The confidence in my opinion is not a problem,” said Kroos, whose Germany coach Joachim Loew is among those considered a potential successor to Lopetegui.
“We have many champions in the World Cup and the Champions League, and we have shown we can turn around tough situations. Remember that in the last few years, we have not only played good games, there have been bad ones too.
“We are creating, we are doing everything we can to get good results and that proves we are behind the coach. He is a very good coach in my opinion and I’m confident we can turn this around with him.”
Opposite Lopetegui this weekend will be Ernesto Valverde, watching his Barca side with their own superstar extracted too.
This will be the first Clasico without Messi or Ronaldo since December 2007. The strikers then included Ruud van Nistelrooy and Robinho for Madrid, Samuel Eto’o and Ronaldinho for Barcelona.
Messi will return, in three weeks if his right arm heals as expected, but Ronaldo’s permanent absence has weighed heavier with every chance missed.
When Barca went three games without a win last month, the feeling was both clubs were in crisis. Lopetegui was under pressure, but so was Valverde.
Then Messi blew away Tottenham at Wembley and, a day later, Madrid lost 1-0 to CSKA Moscow, lacking the snap and spark Ronaldo once provided and that Messi had given the night before.
Momentum has diverged since. Two more Madrid defeats followed to leave Lopetegui on the brink while Barca are now 10 points from 12 and top of the table.
“Madrid will be even more dangerous,” Valverde said on Wednesday. “They will come here to demonstrate all the strength they have.”
He also knows failure to put away a wobbling rival will see the doubts circling again, but win, and a seven-point gap opens up.
Or, Madrid can cut it to one, with only a single game, at home to Real Valladolid, against an opponent in the top half before Christmas. It will either be a chance for a Lopetegui revival or, the perfect start for his successor.
HEAD TO HEAD
06/05/18 Barcelona 2-2 Madrid
23/12/17 Madrid 0-3 Barcelona
23/04/17 Madrid 2-3 Barcelona
03/12/16 Barcelona 1-1 Madrid
02/04/16 Barcelona 1-2 Madrid
21/11/15 Madrid 0-4 Barcelona
22/03/15 Barcelona 2-1 Madrid
25/10/14 Madrid 3-1 Barcelona
23/03/14 Madrid 3-4 Barcelona
26/10/13 Barcelona 2-1 Madrid
02/03/13 Madrid 2-1 Barcelona
07/10/12 Barcelona 2-2 Madrid
21/04/12 Barcelona 1-2 Madrid
10/12/11 Madrid 1-3 Barcelona
16/04/11 Madrid 1-1 Barcelona
29/11/10 Barcelona 5-0 Madrid
10/04/10 Madrid 0-2 Barcelona
Team P GD Pts
Man City 9 23 23
Liverpool 9 13 23
Chelsea 9 13 21
Arsenal 9 11 21
Tottenham 9 9 21
Bournemouth 9 4 17
Watford 9 1 16
Everton 9 3 15
Wolves 9 1 15
Man Utd 9 -1 14
Leicester 9 0 12
Brighton 9 -3 11
Burnley 9 -7 8
West Ham 9 -6 7
Crystal Palace 9 -6 7
Southampton 9 -8 6
Cardiff 9 -11 5
Fulham 9 -14 5
Huddersfield 9 -14 3
Newcastle 9 -8 2
Brighton v Wolves 15:00
Fulham v B’mouth 15:00
Liverpool v Cardiff 15:00
Southampton v Newcastle 15:00
Watford v Huddersfield 15:00
Leicester v West Ham 17:30
Burnley v Chelsea 13:30
Crystal Palace v Arsenal 13:30
Man Utd v Everton 16:00