On Sunday, Real Madrid and Barcelona meet in a game that could decide the outcome of La Liga, and Barça coach Tata Martino’s fate. For Madrid, it is a chance to cement their place at the top of La Liga, while for Barça it represents their last realistic shot at mounting a title challenge. Such is the crazy nature of Spanish football that despite a 7-0 win against Osasuna last weekend, the vultures are circling around the Camp Nou, and if Madrid were to inflict a heavy defeat on the Catalans, it would be the final straw for the directors of the Catalan club, who are said to be looking for a replacement for Martino already.
When these two sides met back in October, it was a very different story. Ancelotti was just finding his feet in the capital, and Madrid succumbed to a limp 2-1 defeat, barely threatening Victor Valdes’ goal. The Italian manager had named a defensive line-up, including Sergio Ramos in midfield, and it was clear that he didn’t yet know his best eleven. Star signing Gareth Bale paled in comparison with Neymar, and the general consensus was that Barça could have scored more. It seemed as if Tata Martino’s side were on the up, whereas there was still a lot of tinkering to do for Ancelotti.
What a difference five months can make. For now, talks of crisis have been subdued after Barça secured their passage to the last eight of the Champions League against Manchester City, but recent defeats against lowly Valladolid and Real Sociedad have put Martino’s position in jeopardy. Madrid, meanwhile, look a different team to the side that played against Barcelona in October. The attacking trio of Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo has finally clicked for Ancelotti, while the team’s defence has improved drastically. Diego López has conceded 26 goals in 28 games, putting him third in Marca’s Zamora rankings for the best Spanish goalkeeper in La Liga, and, while his heroics cannot be understated, this is also down to the solid back four that he has had in front of him.
But there is another reason that this Clásico has taken on so much importance. There is a third team involved. Traditionally Madrid and Barça have occupied the top two places before this clash, but this time the outstanding Atlético Madrid are ahead of Barcelona, in second place. Up until recently, Atlético could rightfully have considered themselves as the best team in Madrid this season, and they have certainly been more impressive than the Catalans. A glance at the points totals in La Liga shows why some have labelled this a three-team Clásico. Real are top with 70 points, while Atlético are second with 67 points, only one point ahead of Barça in third place. The margins for error are extremely tight, and, if Atleti were to win against bottom side Betis on Sunday, and Real Madrid lose against Barça, then they would go top again.
While some have predicted a heavy defeat for Barça, they still remain formidable opponents when it matters the most, as demonstrated in the recent performances against Manchester City and Osasuna last weekend, and they will certainly be no pushovers. However, Ancelotti was right when he said that his team ‘arrive in a really good moment’, and we can expect a Real Madrid performance far removed from the tentative display in October. This promises to be an intriguing Clásico.
This article first appeared on Sabotage Times.
By Tomás Hill López-Menchero