La Liga leaders Real Madrid head into El Clasico on Sunday looking to record a sixth successive win over Barcelona but they will be welcoming a side in resurgent form under new boss Xavi.
The European giants have already met twice this season, with Carlo Ancelotti’s side winning in the league at the Nou Camp before also seeing off their Catalan rivals in extra time in the Supercopa de Espana.
It will be the first Clasico at the Bernabeu since March 2020 after Real returned to their iconic stadium earlier this season amid ongoing renovations. Sunday’s match will have a capacity restricted to a sold-out 60,000 fans.
Real will begin the game 15 points ahead of their visitors, who sit third behind Sevilla and are unbeaten in the league since 4 December when Xavi suffered his sole defeat in the competition against Real Betis.
It will also be a Clasico that appears slightly different on the eye – neither club will be in their traditional colours, with Real set to sport a black kit to commemorate their 120th anniversary this month, while Barcelona will wear a shirt featuring the yellow and red of the Catalan flag.
What’s on the line?
For Real Madrid, pride and El Clasico bragging rights as the leaders are 10 points clear of second-placed Sevilla. However, earlier this week Ancelotti did recall the time his AC Milan side gave up a 3-0 lead in the Champions League final against Liverpool in 2005 as a way of saying the title race was not over.
Barcelona, meanwhile, are battling to make the top four and secure Champions League football for next season. They have not failed to reach Europe’s elite competition since the 2003-04 season, when Xavi was a player.
That was also the last time Barcelona failed to make the knockout stages of the Champions League, until this season, with Xavi unable to rescue the club’s group stage after replacing Ronald Koeman in November as they finished third and dropped into the Europa League.
With both clubs boasting enormous global followings, and El Clasico often the most-watched match around the world, La Liga president Javier Tebas called the game a “driving force”.
Who will make the difference?
Real Madrid will be without in-form striker Karim Benzema, who has scored 22 goals in 25 games in La Liga this term, after he picked up a calf injury in the 3-0 win against Mallorca on Monday.
“We never take risks,” said Ancelotti. “He can’t play because he hasn’t trained, he feels some discomfort [but] it’s a small injury. Karim is 34-years-old, it can happen.”
Former Real Madrid striker Hugo Sanchez said the French forward would be a big miss for the hosts.
“Benzema has lots of quality, is full of talent and now he is becoming a leader of Real Madrid,” he said. “The fact he is injured, the match is going to be completely different.
“He needs to be looked after and protected. If I was Ancelotti, I wouldn’t put Benzema out on the pitch.”
Real do, however, also boast the league’s second-highest scorer in exciting Brazilian prospect Vinicius Junior, who has netted 14 times.
“Vinicius Junior will be a key player,” added Sanchez, who scored 208 goals in his seven years at the club. “[But] it’s complicated to replace Benzema.”
Ancelotti is confident he has options to replace Benzema and among them are Gareth Bale, Mariano Diaz and Luka Jovic, while the Italian will also consider using Isco and Rodrygo in that position.
Barcelona have a frontman of their own in clinical form, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s winner in the Europa League last-16 tie against Galatasaray on Thursday his seventh goal in 10 games since arriving on a free transfer from Arsenal.
“The Clasico is the biggest match in the world, for sure, because everyone is talking about that game, even when we are outside of the game,” the 32-year-old told La Liga TV.
“It means a lot for everyone at the club and obviously I know how the derbies are – I have played a few in the past – and there is this tension and this feeling that it is something special, something different, and this is what we like.”
Aubameyang’s form is a huge contrast to his final months in north London, with the Gabon international falling out with Gunners boss Mikel Arteta and being stripped of the club captaincy following a disciplinary breach.
Xavi, however, said he felt lucky to have the striker.
“Auba has been a gift from heaven,” he said after Aubameyang scored in their 4-0 win over Osasuna last weekend, calling him a “positive player” and a “privilege to train”.
Another former Premier League player, Ferran Torres, scored twice in that victory having signed from Manchester City in the January window as part of Xavi’s rebuild.
Barcelona’s other recruitment has been largely free transfers or loan deals because of the financial difficulties that led to them losing Lionel Messi to PSG in the summer – deals including signing winger Adama Traore from Wolves.
A clash of styles?
Xavi is about as Barcelona as they come, having come through the club’s La Masia system and spending the majority of his career there before joining Al Sadd in Qatar, where he also began his coaching career.
The 42-year-old said this week he wanted his side to be inspired by Barcelona Femeni, comparing the club’s all-conquering women’s team to the the one he played in under Pep Guardiola and the Dream Team of the early 90s that was coached by Johan Cruyff.
“For several years they have been showing us the way with how they play, how they compete and the hunger they have despite winning everything last year,” he said.
“We have been watching them and it’s a wonder to see them play. They are leading the way in the same way as the Dream Team did in their day or as Pep’s Barca side did later. They are an example for the men’s team.”
They will face a more pragmatic Real Madrid under Ancelotti, who is in his second spell at the club after winning the Champions League in 2013-14.
“From a tactical point of view, our approach will be very important as these kinds of games are often decided by minor details,” midfielder Toni Kroos told the club’s website.
“We just need to keep going in the same vein as recent games, show discipline, be aware of the importance of this match, not just in La Liga, but for our fans.
“We have to prepare for it diligently, show discipline in defence and then up top we’ll always create things.”