Barcelona manager Tata Martino has admitted tonight’s trip to Real Madrid is a do-or-die situation for his team.
A defeat would leave Martino’s men seven points adrift of their eternal rivals with just nine games remaining, and the Argentine boss knows there is no room for any more mistakes.
“It’s probably our last chance to win the league,” he conceded. “It would be really tough to make up seven points – or even four.
“There are very few points left to play for and the top teams don’t tend to slip up much at this stage of the season. A draw won’t be good enough – we need to win.”
The vast majority of Martino’s team selection is well settled, with his only big decision coming on the right wing, where Brazilian starlet Neymar is vying with Pedro and Alexis Sanchez for a starting berth.
Despite a disappointing recent run, Neymar got the nod for Barca’s last big game – the Champions League meeting with Manchester City ten days ago – as Martino attempted in emphatic fashion to build the confidence of his club’s major summer signing, whose form appears to have been affected by the ongoing furore over the financial terms of his transfer.
“Neymar played very well against Manchester City and I want to reiterate that he is one of the five best players in the world, along with Messi, Ronaldo and the odd other player,” stated Martino, hinting that the Brazilian winger will again earn selection tonight. “I don’t need a match, half a match or ten minutes to confirm all the qualities he has. I don’t want him to feel that he’s just another player. I’ll try to make him feel special, because he is.”
Irrespective of the personnel he opts to field, Martino has no doubts about the manner of the performance he hopes to see from his team, making it clear that he has every faith in Barca’s tried and trusted method of attempting to dominate possession. Martino did, however, acknowledge the threat posed by Madrid’s potent strike force.
“We have to play well, keep possession of the ball, build up the play and not lose balls that would allow Madrid to counter-attack,” he summarised. “We have to avoid one-onones out wide with Bale and Cristiano.”
And Martino takes considerable solace in being able to call upon Lionel Messi, noting: “In all the important games, Messi has always turned up.”
Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola is poised to win the Bundesliga title in record time on Tuesday at Hertha Berlin on his debut season with the Bavarian giants.
A 19th consecutive league victory at Berlin's Olympic Stadium will give Bayern their 24th German title with seven matches left, beating their own record they set last season.
Bayern's 2-0 win at Mainz 05 on Saturday left them a massive 23 points clear in the league and they will be uncatchable if they win at Hertha.
"I'm just pleased about winning against one of the toughest teams we'll face this season," said Guardiola in Mainz. "We only need one more win now. It's in our own hands. We can be champions in the capital.
"We've extended our record to 18 wins on the trot. That's the result of a lot of hard work."
Having won 14 of a possible 19 titles during four years as Barcelona coach, Guardiola is set to claim his third title in nine months at Bayern having already won the UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup.
After winning the treble of Champions League, Bundesliga and German Cup under Guardiola's predecessor Jupp Heynckes last season, Bayern have continued their stranglehold on the German league title.
Guardiola's side are just eight matches away from becoming the first team to ever go through an entire season in Germany's top flight unbeaten.
Bayern left it late at Mainz with midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger striking with a header on 82 minutes. His Germany team-mate Mario Goetze then netted the European champions' second four minutes later.
Bayern fired in 23 shots on goal to Mainz's four as they extended their record unbeaten run to 51 Bundesliga matches and earn their 18th consecutive league win.
Having drawn Manchester United in the quarter-finals, Bayern have made no secret of their desire to be the first team to defend the Champions League title.
"We're not really concerned about when we win the title, we want to maintain our rhythm," said Bayern goal-scorer Schweinsteiger. "You always have to work hard for victory here in Mainz.
"They're very aggressive and they press high up the field.
"The first half wasn't easy, but they were tired towards the end."
Bayern's Germany defender Jerome Boateng said he is relishing the clash against Hertha at Berlin's Olympic City having been born in the capital.
"It's wonderful that we could win the league in Berlin, which is where it all started for me," said the 25-year-old, the half brother of Ghana midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng. "We've prepared the way for it today and taken a step closer."
Carlo Ancelotti says Real Madrid won’t accept anything less than three points in today’s Clasico meeting with Barcelona at the Bernabeu.
Los Blancos are four points ahead of the Catalan club at the top of La Liga, but the Italian coach says his team will adopt a positive approach rather than worrying about protecting their current lead.
Madrid have been unstoppable at the Bernabeu in recent months, winning their last 17 home games in all competitions and scoring 54 goals in the process – an average of more than three per outing – while conceding just nine goals and keeping no less than 11 clean sheets.
Those impressive statistics give Ancelotti confidence ahead of tonight’s crucial clash, and he has encouraged his players to adopt their usual approach.
“We’re going to try to do what we’ve done in previous matches: play attacking football and defend and attack together,” he said. “We won’t settle for a draw because we have the advantage of being at home and we want to win.”
Madrid’s major doubt for the game is in-form French striker Karim Benzema, who limped out of last weekend’s win at Malaga with a thigh injury and looked less than comfortable during Saturday’s final training session.
With fellow forward Jese Rodriguez ruled out with a long-term knee injury sustained in Tuesday’s Champions League victory over Schalke and Isco struggling with a heavy cold, Ancelotti could be forced to field relatively untested youngster Alvaro Morata.
But the Italian coach downplayed his potential striker dilemma, claiming: “The whole squad are in good shape.
“Benzema has recovered well and has already trained with the team.
“We had a small problem with Isco, who turned up with a bit of a cold, but he trained perfectly. The whole squad is fine.”
The early weeks of the season were punctuated with regular admissions from Ancelotti that his team were struggling to find fluency as the new boss instigated a new possession-based style following his summer arrival in place of Jose Mourinho.
The Clasico meeting at the Nou Camp, in particular, was a disappointing occasion for Ancelotti and his team as they struggled to adjust to a new-look formation and suffered a deserved 2-1 defeat.
However, those difficult days seem a long time ago now, with Los Blancos becoming a highly convincing team unit following Ancelotti’s decision in November to employ a 4-3-3 formation, with Angel Di Maria and Luka Modric supporting Xabi Alonso in an excellent central midfield trio.
Ancelotti admitted he is pleased with his team’s form, saying: “We have balance now and we won’t do anything special for this match.
“In both teams there are players who can win the game on their own – the difference will be in the teamwork, not just the quality of individual players.”
Meanwhile, Gareth Bale will be hoping for a first win over Barcelona and he spoke ahead of the game of his blossoming relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo.
“When I first came here they made a lot about whether we might clash. But we get on very well,” he said. “We’re working well for the team, scoring and creating a lot of goals together.
“I’m enjoying playing with him – he’s the world’s best player, so how can you not enjoy it? From the moment I came to Madrid he’s done nothing but help me and give me good advice.”