Real Madrid face Barcelona at the Bernabeu on Saturday in one of the most eagerly awaited ‘El Gran Clasico’ contests in recent years.
With the sides locked at the La Liga summit on the same number of points, Real lead their rivals by just one goal, meaning that this game will go a long way in determining whether the league title will be re-acquainting itself with Catalonia or wrestled back to the capital by the Madrid giants.
Substitute Zlatan Ibrahimovich’s second half strike separated the two sides back in November, as Barcelona ran out 1-0 winners at the Nou Camp, with the Swedish forward scoring just moments after coming off the bench.
That meeting holds great significance, as if the two sides end the campaign on the same points total, then the destination of the Primera Division crown will be decided by their head-to-head record, as opposed to their prolificacy in front of goal.
Heading into their biggest match of the season, Real Madrid have won 12 successive league games and are not only hoping to gain a foothold in the title race, but also intent on avenging last season’s embarrassing 6-2 defeat at the hands of their much loathed rivals.
Amazingly, neither side has lost at home so far in this campaign. Real hold a 100 per cent record at the Bernabeu, and Villarreal are the only side to have stopped Barca taking maximum points at the Nou Camp, after gaining a 1-1 draw there in January.
It is a huge task that awaits Pep Guardiola’s side on Saturday night, and one that will be made all the more difficult, should Ibrahimovich not recover in time from the calf injury that he picked up during the warm-up just before last weekend’s 4-1 win over Athletic Bilbao.
However, Guardiola will take confidence from the fact that his side ended a similar Madrid patch of form last term, when the current league leaders went unbeaten for 18 games between the two “El Clasico” games, only for that to run end miserably in the same fixture.
Last season will not have made comfortable viewing for those within the Bernabeu walls, as Barca achieved a clean sweep of trophies at home and on the continent, culminating in their World Club championship victory back in December.
That dominance triggered a summer spending spree, which saw the arrival of the next generation of Galacticos, led by the marquee signing of Cristiano Ronaldo for £80 million from Manchester United
Real Madrid are hopeful that their other bank busting signing, Kaka, will return for the clash, after having spent the last month on the sidelines with a troublesome thigh injury.
The Brazilian has been working round the clock with the club’s physio team this week in a bid to prove his fitness, and hopes to play some part in the game, even if it means a place on Manuel Pelligrini’s bench.
Barcelona coach Guardiola will again be able to call upon the services of Andres Iniesta, after he returned from injury as a substitute in the 4-1 demolition of Arsenal.