Barcelona vs Real Madrid | Sunday 22 March | Camp Nou | 22:00
Barcelona host Real Madrid on Sunday in the biggest match on earth, El Clasico, with both teams tussling for the La Liga title. Barca hold a one-point advantage over Real with just eleven games of the season remaining, making this a must-win match for both sides. The Catalan club come into it enjoying much better form in 2015 than their opponents with star men Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez at the top of their game. Real’s Cristiano Ronaldo is suddenly struggling to light up La Liga as he did last year.
To Win (90mins)
Real Madrid 36/10
Barcelona kicked off the biggest week of their season in style by beating Eibar 2-0 thanks to a Messi double that took him past Ronaldo as La Liga’s top scorer this season. Barca played Manchester City on Wednesday, just four days before this decisive clash, coming out comfortable 1-0 winners. It should have been a rout if not for a remarkable performance from City goalkeeper Joe Hart. Luis Enrique has certainly got everyone at Barcelona back on track in a relatively short space of time. It wasn't too long ago that there were very strong rumours that he could be sacked. However, those talks have been replaced by chatter on whether this side can emulate Pep Guardiola's and win the treble.
After using a different starting lineup in 29 successive matches in all competitions, Enrique finally had his fingers badly burned in the match against Real Sociedad at the turn of the year. Immediately thereafter the rotation stopped and any rotations since have been minimal and done sparingly. The improvement in performance and results has been there for all to see. Enrique has not tinkered with the 4-3-3 formation that Barca generally stick to as he did last year. Barca's front three are on fire at the moment and their movement has been first-class. Given licence to roam, it's not uncommon to see any one of the three dropping deep to receive the ball and either keeping the width down the channels or being more direct centrally. With all three keen to work in tandem, their freedom of expression and interplay is paying wonderful dividends.
This year alone, Messi, Neymar and Suarez have scored 41 goals between them and have also racked up sixteen assists. Neymar has stirred the pot ahead of the vital clash by saying that he, Suarez and Messi are better than Real Madrid's trio of Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale. "We're getting better and stronger all the time," said the Brazilian. "We're getting to know each other better and better. Suarez and Messi are two players who need no introduction. Messi is the best in the world and Suarez is one of the best too. It's wonderful to play alongside them. Is our attacking trio better than the BBC? I think so, but I'd rather not talk about our opponents,” said Neymar. In all competitions this seaon, Barca’s front three have outscored Madrid's attacking unit by 80 goals to 75 this season.
Despite maintaining a top-two position throughout the campaign and reaching the Champions League quarter-finals, Real Madrid fans have greeted their recent displays with jeers, Bale one player who has been specifically targeted after a poor contribution in recent weeks. Carlo Ancelotti has been backed by the club's hierarchy, but just thirteen points from seven league games has seen Real overtaken by Barcelona in the league table. Bale was back on the scoresheet as Los Blancos warmed up for El Clasico with a 2-0 win at home against Levante on Sunday. Bale, as well as Real, silenced their critics following the midweek Champions League loss to Schalke with the Welshman volleying home to open the scoring and then deflecting Ronaldo's shot in just before the break. Madrid were without a win in three matches, drawing with Villarreal and losing to Athletic Bilbao and Schalke, as they welcomed lowly Levante to the Bernabeu. Ancelotti’s men produced an impressive first half display to return to winning ways.
Overall it was not the dominant performance that they needed but it at least meant that they will only be a point behind Barca when they run out at Camp Nou. Madrid were boosted by a starring performance from Luka Modric as the Croatian returned to start for the first time in four months to run the show in a man-of-the-match performance. Since leaving Tottenham for Real Madrid, Modric has shown that he is one of the best central midfielders in the world. The deep-lying playmaker is an essential member of Ancelotti’s side and his return could have not come at a better time. Sergio Ramos' return was also welcomed as Madrid kept their first clean sheet in four matches. The Spaniard will give Los Blancos the much needed motivation and aggressiveness needed in an encounter of this magnitude.
VERDICT: Barcelona 13/20
Real Madrid took the bragging rights in the first round meeting, winning 3-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu. However, Barcelona come into this clash as clear favourites. Enrique has now found his feet at the helm while star striker Suarez has been phenomenal in recent weeks. Let’s not forget red-hot Messi who has banged in seventeen goals in 2015 to surpass rival Ronaldo who has only mustered up five in that time. The Catalans have been simply irresistible at home this season, winning eighteen of their twenty matches at Camp Nou. Barca are tipped to go four points clear of Real by picking up the victory.