The biggest game in world football returns as Real Madrid host Barcelona in the first El Clasico of the season on Saturday evening.
A game known for its high intensity, on-field brawls and wonder goals, the Clasico is a spectacle that draws in people from all over the world.
In the 2014 fixtures, the average viewing figures were just shy of 500 million people, highlighting its importance to football fans from all nations, who tune in to watch the best players on the planet come up against each other.
Ahead of Saturday’s 230th competitive meeting, we take a look at the match, teams, key players and history…
How Have They Started the Season?
The two teams have taken up their usual positions of first and second in the league, however they aren’t as far in front of the rest of the pack as they once would be. Barcelona sit top of the table on 27 points, having won nine of their first 11 matches, losing two. Real are only three points behind them in second with 24 points, but they are the league’s top scorers with 26.
A huge six-pointer, victory for Barca would see them open up a six-point gap over their biggest rivals, and with fairly comfortable fixtures coming up until the winter break, the Catalan club would go into the second half of the season as favourites.
For Madrid, they suffered their first loss of the campaign, in a 3-2 away defeat to the struggling Sevilla before the international break. Despite this, they have looked convincing in both La Liga and the Champions League, with three points this weekend enough to take them top on goal difference.
Battle of the Bosses
Luis Enrique and Rafa Benitez face each other for the first time, and the two men have come under criticism during their short tenures at the Spanish clubs. Benitez has been under pressure at Los Blancos despite having a good start to the season, losing only once. But his work behind the scenes has caused controversy, as he appears to have upset many star names at the Bernabeu. With Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and James Rodriguez voicing their displeasure at decisions taken by the former Liverpool boss, defeat against Barcelona would be a nail in Benitez’s fairly premature coffin.
As for Luis Enrique, the decision whether to play Lionel Messi or not is one that doesn’t seem to have a positive outcome. Despite winning the treble last term, his selection of Barca’s big players has also caused trouble in the past, and with Messi only just returning from injury, playing him could cause a recurrence, whereas resting him could result in losing the game and a lot of criticism. The pressure is high for both managers, with the game being a must not lose, rather than a must win.
Boasting a wealth of Clasico experience, both positive and negative, Madrid fans will be delighted to see Sergio Ramos fit for the fixture. The Spanish centre-back has postponed shoulder surgery in order to face Barcelona, insisting that he will play on painkillers in order to continue his fine partnership with Raphael Varane in the heart of the defence. Up front, the goal scoring prowess of Cristiano Ronaldo will be Los Blanco’s biggest threat, using Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez to support the Portuguese forward in Karim Benzema’s absence.
For Barcelona, the loss of Lionel Messi to injury has been somewhat forgotten about due to the partnership of Neymar and Luis Suarez. The duo have made light work of the Argentinian’s injury lay-off, scoring 20 league goals to fire the Catalan club to the top. If Messi is to miss the game, or to start on the bench, then the continued form of these two will be key to any Barcelona success.
The last fixture between these two was contested at the Nou Camp, as Barcelona came out 2-1 winners. Jeremy Mathieu opened the scoring for the hosts before Ronaldo levelled the scores before the break with a fine strike. But the game was won by a powerful effort from just inside the box by Suarez, who struck his first Clasico goal. The Uruguayan had endured a difficult debut, losing 3-1 at the Bernabeu and putting in a fairly poor showing after coming back from a ban. But he managed to get revenge here, extending Barca’s lead at the top of the table as they picked up the title in May.
A historic fixture, the dominance of victory has changed hands many times since the first ever game in 1929. Real Madrid come out on top in La Liga, with 71 wins to Barca’s 69, with both sides managing 32 draws. In the Champions League, it’s honours even as they have both won three times, drawing twice. Barcelona have more Spanish Cup victories over their rivals, with 14 wins to Madrid’s 12. But in recent years, El Clasico has been one that Barcelona fans look forward to most. Between 2008-2011 they remained unbeaten in seven league games against Los Blancos, winning six times. And from 2008 to present day, Madrid have only beaten the Catalan club three times in the league, a trend that new boss Benitez has vowed to turn around.
Where will the game be won and lost?
With Ramos playing through the pain of a shoulder injury, and a fairly inexperienced Raphael Varane his partner at the back, the game could be lost in defence for Madrid, and won up front for Barcelona.
Should Suarez and Neymar get the freedom they have received in recent matches, there could be a lot of goals in this game. If Messi is fit and included as well, it could be a long game for Madrid’s defence.
On the flip side, Real have a lot of strong players who could control the midfield, as well as having youth in Mateo Kovacic, who recently signed from Inter. If Toni Kroos and Luke Modric get a foothold in the game, they can create many opportunities for Ronaldo, Bale and Rodriguez to get through an aging Barcelona back-four.