Real Madrid v Barcelona: El Clasico Preview

La Liga’s clash of the titans, first Clasico of the season is almost here and the game at the Bernabeu pits leaders Barcelona against newly- crowned world champions Real Madrid. A Barca win would see them extend their lead over Madrid to 14 points before Christmas.

It is impossible to look past Lionel Messi, still the outstanding player in La Liga. The great man has directly contributed to 19 goals this season, which is eight more than anybody else. If you have Messi and you keep it tight at the other end, you have a chance. That is what Ernesto Valverde has done.

Barca have only had the best defensive record in one of the five seasons since Pep Guardiola left, but nobody in La Liga has conceded fewer as it stands – and nobody in Europe’s five major leagues has conceded fewer away from home.

“I think now it is really hard to attack Barca.” Ivan Rakitic told Sky sport in an interview He aslo added: “We are closer and the lines are better.”

Ronaldo had trained alone on Wednesday and Thursday and looked happy to be back with the team

Valverde has them organised – no team in La Liga has conceded fewer from set-pieces – and the performances of the goalkeeper have helped as well. Speaking to Marc-Andre Ter Stegen in another fascinating interview that you will be able to see ahead of El Clasico, he explained to me why he is playing better than ever.

“There is a lot more rhythm for me now,” he said. “I’m playing in the league and I’m playing in the Champions League. You can always do better just three or four days after the last match.”

But it’s not just Ter Stegen’s form. Barcelona have depth now too. The signing of Paulinho was questioned but he has scored six goals and provided two assists already. Paco Alcacer, although injured for Saturday’s game, has made vital contributions too – notably scoring both of Barcelona’s goals in the 2-1 home win over Sevilla.

Of course, there are still some doubts. Neymar has not been properly replaced and Luis Suarez’s inconsistent form is a consequence of him struggling to find as much space. But these problems are not quite as big as the ones facing their opponents on Saturday.

Gareth Bale was also involved in full training and could start with Ronaldo and Karim Benzema

Madrid were fancied to retain the title, particularly having beaten Barcelona home and away in the Super Cup. But it did not take long for weaknesses to emerge – failing to win any of their first three home games, the worst start at the Bernabeu in over 20 years.

The strikers must take some responsibility. At this stage of last season Cristiano Ronaldo had 10 goals in La Liga, Gareth Bale five and Karim Benzema four. This season Ronaldo has four, while Bale and Benzema have two apiece. But it is not just about those three.

 This time last season Alvaro Morata had scored five La Liga goals as well. Amazingly, there is not a single Real Madrid player who has matched that total this time around. Support players such as Marco Asensio have struggled to produce their best form consistently.With injury problems too this is a tricky time for Zinedine Zidane. He is being criticised for being too predictable and his substitutions are not making an impact. Madrid got nine goals from the bench last season – Morata getting four of them. This season they only have one.

Zidane seems happy to wait for things to get better and the good news ahead of El Clasico is that there has long been a feeling that Florentino Perez’s squads are better suited to shorter competitions rather than league seasons that require hunger, consistency and hard work.

Over 90 minutes, the reigning world and European champions have shown twice already this season that they can be more than a match for Barca. We will need to see Madrid at their best. If that doesn’t happen, their chances of catching this Barcelona side will be over.

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