Matchday 26 in La Liga is all about first-place Barcelona’s (+210) trip to Real Madrid (+118) on Sunday at 3 p.m. Eastern.
Barcelona (55 points) is currently two points ahead of Los Blancos (53) in La Liga. This match-up is one of the best in the sport when there’s no title implications, so this weekend’s game is as must-see as it gets.
A Clásico that could go a long way in deciding whether Barcelona can win La Liga for the fifth (!) time in six years would overshadow the rest of the slate regardless of what else was on tap. But we’ll mention here that third-place Atleti (-103) travels to last-place Espanyol (+350); fourth-place Sevilla (-210) hosts 12th-place Osasuna (+600); and fifth-place Getafe – who is in the Europa League round of 16 after bouncing Ajax!! — (+128) visits 18th-place Mallorca (+280).
El Clásico Preview: Can Real Madrid right the ship?
It was not that long ago that we (and by “we” I mostly mean me) at High Press Soccer were writing about what a good bet Zinedine Zidane’s team was to win La Liga and knock out Manchester City in the Champions League round of 16. It even seemed like a defensible idea to take a long look at them at +1,100 (as of February 17) to win the Champions League.
Through nearly 80 minutes of the City game on Wednesday, RM looked like it would enter Leg 2 with a great chance to advance … But things went about as far south as they possibly could have, starting with Gabriel Jesus’ equalizer in the 78th.
Real Madrid, which did not lose during a 21-game stretch from October 19 (vs. Mallorca in La Liga) until February 6 (vs. Real Sociedad in the Copa del Rey), is now 1-2-2 in its last five in all competitions.
The loss to Real Sociedad with a line-up full of backups was no big deal. There’s also no shame in losing to Manchester City — though the way they came unraveled was certainly concerning – but drawing Celta Vigo at home and losing 1-0 at Levante were major red flags.
Who provides the offense?
The optimism around this team for a while revolved around the fact that Los Blancos were stout defensively and in the midfield. As for goals, relying on Karim Benzema and whoever might happen to step up on a given day seemed like an underwhelming formula, but it was hard to argue with a 21-game unbeaten streak.
It was also easy – or at least possible — to talk yourself into Eden Hazard coming back and being the final piece of the puzzle. Instead, due to injury, we’ve likely seen the last of him for this season. And all of a sudden, Benzema’s scoring touch has abandoned him – two goals in 12 games is nowhere near enough for a team lacking a second option.
I don’t think a nosedive is coming, but it’s hard to imagine RM getting enough goals the rest of the way to overtake the Catalans in Spain.
The good news for this team is that after Sunday, the next two games are a winnable trip to Real Betis on March 8 and a home game vs. Eibar on March 13. Barcelona, on the other hand, could struggle to pull away (even if they extend their lead to five points with a win on Sunday), as their next opponent, Real Sociedad, is a team nobody wants to see right now.
Quique Setién’s first Clásico
Barcelona has gotten back on track in recent weeks, winning four in a row in La Liga, while earning a draw (and a crucial away goal) in Leg 1 of the UCL round of 16 at Napoli on Tuesday.
This team’s last two results in La Liga – a 5-0 win over Eibar on February 22 and a 2-1 win over Getafe on February 15 – were impressive, but they were also at home.
I’ve beaten this subject to death at this point, but Barcelona just does not play nearly as well away from Camp Nou. Sunday’s trip to the Bernabéu is a great chance for this team to show that it can play at a high level on the road. Another dud, however, would provide all the more reason to doubt what they can really accomplish this season if they’re completely unreliable outside of their own backyard.
What to watch for
Real Madrid has gotten its best results this year by taking a page out of crosstown rival Atleti’s playbook. While their total of 46 goals through 25 games in La Liga is solid, and second only to Barcelona, their biggest games have been devoid of offense.
In three games vs. Atlético (two in La Liga, plus the Supercopa final), the Madrid rivals combined for exactly one (!) goal in 300 minutes of action. That’s a staggering amount of goalless soccer, and bad news for anyone hoping for a wide-open affair on Sunday.
With that in mind, I’ll let you take a wild guess how the first Clásico went on December 18. It ended 0-0. The good news, however, is that prior to that dud, these teams had not played to a 0-0 draw since November 2002.
Barcelona’s injury issues continue to mount
Expect a goal or two in this one, but not much more than that. I’d feel a lot more confident in Barcelona if they were at full strength.
In addition to their lack of depth up top, they’ll likely be missing Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto, and Gerard Piqué may be out as well. Despite that, I’ll go with the Catalans, but only because I don’t want to be the guy who predicts a draw. Real Madrid enters this game healthy with the exception of the Eden Hazard injury.