Eagerly anticipated 230th competitive meeting between Real Madrid and Barcelona takes place on Saturday at Santiago Bernabeu, with both sides hoping to improve their position in what is likely to be a three-horse title chase. And even with Leo Messi likely to be left on the bench, the latest edition of El Clasico is likely to deliver premium excitement to football fans around the globe.
Taking into account that some Real Madrid coaches had been sacked solely for failing to ensure team’s performances were pleasing to the eye, many were surprised to see defence-minded Rafael Benitez appointed los Blancos head coach last summer. The Spaniard did help los Merengues patch up the leaky defence, but team’s showings up front have left a lot to be desired, with 26 goals in 11 league games not exactly a good return for their standards. There was even talk that the players led by Cristiano Ronaldo and captain Sergio Ramos complained to Florentino Perez after Benitez had revealed he would deploy a defence-oriented approach in the first El Clasico of the season, and it remains to be seen whether this will have any effect on the manager’s plans. The 3-2 loss to Sevilla definitely came at a bad time as it was achieved just before the two-week break and no doubt it places extra pressure on Real Madrid, who sit three points behind their bitter rivals. There have been some good news for the hosts though as Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Keylor Navas have all proved their fitness, although the latest reports suggest that the French striker may be left on the bench in tomorrow’s encounter.
It’s been a while since Barcelona last spent a couple of months with superstar Lionel Messi unavailable for selection, but this team did well to show that they can cope without even one of the world’s best ever footballers. The likes of Neymar and Suarez have clearly enjoyed the new responsibility as they were scoring goals for fun during this period, meaning that coach Luis Enrique can afford to leave the Argentine forward on the bench in case he does not prove fit enough to start. The Catalans have had their share of problems in the opening exchanges, but they quickly recovered from every slip-up and they clearly head into El Clasico in better mood than the opposition. Luis Enrique should have Ivan Rakitic back from injury, while Javier Mascherano returns from suspension, and he has confirmed that Lionel Messi will be in the squad for the Real game. However, even though youngster Munir has done fairly well in recent weeks, chances are that Andres Iniesta will be moved further up the pitch, in which case Sergi Roberto and Ivan Rakitic would partner Sergio Busquets in the centre of the park.
Real Madrid have not exactly impressed in recent weeks and the poor dressing room atmosphere is unlikely to help defeat in-form Barcelona. There are no doubts that Leo Messi will be sorely missed, but the Catalans should have enough quality and character to avoid defeat at the Bernabeu, and they would probably settle for a draw.
Best Odds: 11/4
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