Photo Credit: Inside Sports
This is the most famous and bitterest rivalry football matche between Spain’s/Europe’s two clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid. La Liga's title race is over. But plenty of pride will be on the line as Barcelona host Real Madrid in Sunday's Clasico clash. Barca wrapped up the league title last weekend with four games to spare, a win that completed a domestic double to go with the Copa del Rey trophy. Madrid, meanwhile, have struggled in Laliga this season, their patchy Liga form contrasting with an imperious Champions League defense.
No guard of honor for Barcelona
Real Madrid is not entertaining the idea of giving Barcelona the satisfaction of being met with a guard of honor when they visit the Camp Nou. Having been officially declared as champions following a 4-2 win against Deportivo La Coruna, the Catalans have stressed on the need for their arch-rivals to give them their due respect by applauding them when they emerge from the dressing room onto the field. Sadly, that will not be witnessed at the Camp Nou after top figures in the Real Madrid dressing room categorically opted against the idea.
Ultimately, Barcelona's quest to reclaim the Primera Division from Madrid was made to look easy. Valverde's men were spurred by a marvellous hat-trick from Lionel Messi to down Deportivo 4-2, putting the title out of reach for both Atletico and Real having played just 34 games.
The Catalans are also yet to taste defeat in this almost-perfect season, and a Clasico victory would take them one step closer to achieving a feat no other Spanish club has ever managed. Madrid, meanwhile, can now focus on wresting second from the clutches of Atletico while mentally preparing for an incredible third straight Champions League title.
While the Merengue have saved their best for Europe this season their record in 2018 is nothing to be scoffed at, with Cristiano Ronaldo in particular hitting a rich vein of form since the turn of the year. And even if the faintly ridiculous to and fro over a prospective guard of honour has overshadowed matters on the pitch, Sunday's Clasico should still be a must-watch game between two teams that, in their own way, have cemented their status once more at the very top of world football over the course of this season.
Andres Iniesta’s last El Clasico
Skipper and veteran midfielder of Barcelona, Andres Iniesta, will feature in his last El Clasico after announcing that he will be leaving his boyhood club at the end of the season. As a result, the 33-year-old will be required to give an extra 10% alongside his teammates although reports suggest that he’s yet to recover fully for the encounter after picking up a knock on Thursday. However, the player has resumed training and is expected to be in action come in this EL Clasico.
Ramos vs Messi, Pique vs Ronaldo
This one-on-one battle is nothing new to fans of the El Clasico. More often than not, it adds more spice to the encounter as they tend to serve up enough controversies and drama.
On one end, Gerard Pique and Lionel Messi have been instrumental in helping Barcelona to secure a domestic double whereas Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo have contributed their respective quota to put Los Blancos on the cusps of a third successive UEFA Champions League triumph despite a poor campaign on the local front.
It will, indeed, be interesting how both defenders will be able to contain the threats spewed by two of the greatest players in the history of football.
Pride and an unbeaten record at stake for Barcelona
With La Liga having been already won by the Catalans, pride takes center stage in the upcoming clash. Another thing at stake is Barcelona’s unbeaten record which could come to an end when they welcome Real Madrid to the Camp Nou.
Ernesto Valverde’s men are yet to put a foot wrong this season, racking up 24 wins and 8 draws after 34 games. They have already broken the record for the longest run of games without defeat in the Spanish top flight and their tally currently stands at 41.
Nevertheless, Real Madrid – who come into the encounter on the back of securing Champions League final qualification at the expense of Bayern Munich – will aim to spoil the party for the Blaugrana.
Messi, Ronaldo and the race for Pichichi
A late surge by Cristiano Ronaldo turned a lot of heads as he managed to significantly reduce the difference between his and Lionel Messi’s goal tally in the race for La Liga’s top scorer’s gong. After featuring in 24 of Real Madrid’s 34 matches so far, the Portuguese forward has managed a goal return of 25.
However, his antagonist - Lionel Messi - zoomed off and increased the chasm after bagging a hat-trick to seal the league title for Barcelona against Deportivo La Coruna. His tally now stands at 32 with four games left to be played his side.The Argentine forward who remains as the highest-scoring player in the history of the El Clasico could, as a result, get another inch closer to the Pichichi should he manage to get on the scoreline at the Camp Nou.
Goalkeepers: Ter Stegen, Cillessen
Defenders: Semedo, Pique, Alba, Digne, Umtiti, Mina, Vermaelen
Midfielders: Roberto, Paulinho, Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta, Coutinho, Gomes, Denis Suarez
Forwards: Luis Suarez, Messi, Dembele, Alcacer
With the title already guaranteed, Barca coach Ernesto Valverde will nevertheless field a strong line-up at Camp Nou.
The Catalans have a clean bill of health, while all eyes will be on Andres Iniesta as the midfielder plays at home for the first time since his announcement he would be leaving the club in the summer.
Potential Barcelona starting XI: Ter Stegen, Semedo, Pique, Umtiti, Alba; Coutinho, Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez.
Real Madrid Squad
Goalkeepers: Navas, Casilla, Luca
Defenders: Ramos, Carvajal, Vallejo, Varane, Nacho, Marcelo, Theo, Achraf
Midfielders: Kroos, Modric, Bale, Casemiro, Llorente, Isco, Asensio, Kovacic, Ceballos
Forwards: Ronaldo, Benzema, Mayoral, Vazquez
Their slim Liga chances now extinguished, Madrid's focus will be on gaining revenge for December's 3-0 Clasico blowout at the hands of Barcelona at the Bernabeu.
Zinedine Zidane is thus likely to bring out his big guns for the clash, with Tuesday's substitute Gareth Bale a candidate to start after impressing in Madrid's last Liga runout.
Potential Madrid starting XI: Navas; Nacho, Varane, Ramos, Marcelo; Kroos, Casemiro, Modric, Isco; Bale, Ronaldo.
Photo credit: Goal, Sky Sports, Time Soccer, Sports Illustrated
With inputs from Live Soccer and All Football.