Although Real Madrid fans will reserve the majority of their ire for Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez when arch enemies roll into town tonight, another visitor is sure to receive more than his fair share of abuse: Barca boss Luis Enrique.
The Nou Camp chief is regarded with scorn by Madridistas after committing the heresy of leaving their club to join Barca on a free transfer in 1996.
He had spent five moderately successful seasons at the Bernabeu after starting his career with Sporting Gijon, never fully winning over Los Blancos fans despite playing with his trademark wholehearted endeavour.
The chief problem was that he was shifted from position to position, suffering from the tag of ‘utility player’ and being asked to fill in everywhere from full-back to striker, never having the chance to nail down a specific role in the team.
He left Madrid having scored 15 goals in 157 league appearances, occasionally looking good enough to excel in such lofty surroundings but at other times not quite cutting the mustard, and his departure would have caused little fuss if he had elected to join any other club than Barcelona.
The antipathy was accentuated when Enrique repeatedly went out of his way to emphasise how much happier and more appreciated he felt at the Nou Camp than he had ever done in the capital, especially when he exploded into an emotional celebration after scoring against his former club.
Those actions, which Enrique has never regretted, turned him into a hate figure for Madrid fans, something that Enrique seems to relish, further stoking the fires earlier this week when he observed: “You are never more proud to be a Barca player than when you are at the Bernabeu.”
Today’s game is not, of course, Enrique’s first return to the Bernabeu as a manager – he was in charge of Celta Vigo last season, suffering a 3-0 loss as Cristiano Ronaldo grabbed a late brace in the first game after the Christmas break.
However, a few months later Enrique further endeared himself to Barca fans – and alienated himself from Madrid followers – by leading his Celta team to a 2-0 home success over Los Blancos in the penultimate game of the season, a result which made it mathematically impossible for Carlo Ancelotti’s men to claim the title.
Today’s Clasico, however, is another level and by far the biggest occasion of Enrique’s coaching career to date.
Although he redeemed himself with a strong season at Celta, the suspicion that Enrique might struggle to manage a really big club still lingers.
Today, he can put that accusation to rest – and he wouldn’t choose anywhere else to do it.
Carlo Ancelotti has delivered the teasing message that he may spring a selection surprise in today’s Clasico against Barcelona.
The Italian is not averse to experimenting on big occasions, having played Sergio Ramos in the centre of midfield and Gareth Bale as a central striker in his Clasico coaching debut at the Nou Camp a year ago – a gamble which backfired as Barcelona won 2-1.
And Ancelotti, looking relaxed and confident yesterday ahead of his team’s big day, refused to rule out another unexpected teamsheet this evening.
“I like surprises,” he smiled. “There may be one in the starting line-up. Last year it didn’t work out for me, but sometimes they do.”
With his side in such fantastic form, coming into today’s game on the back of eight consecutive victories, Ancelotti’s comments were probably little more than gentle kidology, and his starting XI is unlikely to deviate too much from the side which performed so well to win 3-0 at Liverpool on Wednesday.
The only two likely changes are in defence, where Dani Carvajal will be preferred to Alvaro Arbeloa on the right flank and Ramos has returned to fitness to resume his trusted partnership with Pepe.
Ancelotti also confirmed that Gareth Bale is unfit to play with the Welsh forward sidelined with a buttock injury.
He said: “He suffered an injury a week ago and won’t be available. He needs one week to rest and then he will start to train.”
Even without Bale, there should be an abundance of individual brilliance on display, but Ancelotti believes collective teamwork will be the decisive factor in deciding the outcome.
Whilst admitting “there’s no game in the world with so much quality”, Ancelotti has urged his team to focus their efforts on playing as a unit rather than relying on moments of inspiration from gifted attacking performers such as Cristiano Ronaldo, James Rodriguez or Isco.
“To win we will have to do everything perfectly,” he added. “We will try to impose our style of play, both in defence and in attack. Our players understand very well that they have to use their quality for the service of the team. Defending well is very important and could be the key to the game.”
Lionel Messi scored a hat-trick when Barca won the last Bernabeu Clasico in a pulsating 4-3 encounter in March, but Ancelotti says there is nothing particularly unusual in his plans to thwart the Argentine.
He said: “Our approach will be the same as always – we need to deprive their strikers of space.
“To do this, we will need to have two defensive lines which don’t leave any space.”
Although Ancelotti was eager to emphasise his team’s excellent form coming into the game, he accepted that table-topping Barca are also full of confidence.
“Both teams are in great form and they look more motivated than last season,” he said. “But it’s a great game to prepare for and I don’t feel under any pressure.”
Ancelotti was also eager to avoid entering a war of words with counterpart Luis Enrique over comments from both managers over their strategies for substituting star men Ronaldo and Messi.
Whereas Enrique claimed he consults his players before making changes after Messi appeared to refuse to come off during last week’s win over Eibar, Ancelotti asserted earlier in the week that he replaced Ronaldo at Anfield without seeking his prior approval.
Yesterday, though, Ancelotti said: “If anyone took what I said as a provocation, they are mistaken. I didn’t mean to offend anyone.”
Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United entertain Chelsea tomorrow in what will be a tough examination of the Dutchman’s progress at Old Trafford.
Andy Gray and Richard Keys, who front beIN Sports’ EPL coverage, discuss what might happen.
Andy Gray: With the greatest respect to the teams they have played so far Louis van Gaal has, in my opinion, had a reasonably soft introduction to being manager of Manchester United but that’s about to change. The fact this game is at Old Trafford will help him and if Diego Costa doesn’t play, and Jose Mourinho is keeping us guessing, that will also be a bonus.
If we take United first, the obvious vulnerability is their back four. They have had just two clean sheets this season against Burnley and QPR, the two poorest sides in the league and that isn’t good enough for players who should be equipped to cope with the demands of the Premier League.
They have got Rafael, who is vastly experienced, Phil Jones, the same, Luke Shaw who played regularly for Southampton last season and Marcus Rojo, an Argentinian international.
The problem is they don’t have anyone who can step up to the plate as the leader, someone with authority who can inspire the players around him. This is an area of the pitch where consistency and communication is vital and on that alone, this is probably the poorest set of centre backs United have had since the Premier League started.
I go way back to Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, two natural leaders and since then they have had Ronnie Johnsen, Jaap Stam, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.
United’s defence also tends to be exposed too easily and that’s down to the fact that their midfielders don’t work hard enough when they don’t have the ball. It’s a different story at Chelsea. Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian have learned to chase back.
These are players who, last season, were reluctant to put in the hard graft but that has changed.
I really hope Mourinho doesn’t approach this game like he did last season when he wasn’t interested in taking the game to United, played with no centre-forward, and got a boring 0-0, one of the poorest games I have ever seen between these two clubs.
The big question is what he does up front if Costa doesn’t start. Loic Remy is also injured so he will probably go with Didier Drogba up front or he could play Hazard in that central role in the way that Lionel Messi does for Barcelona. Whatever he does, Chelsea should take this opportunity to go to Old Trafford to win, make a statement, and knock United out of contention for the title race which a Chelsea victory would do.
Chelsea are the better team but because this game is at Old Trafford, and I make this judgement on the assumption that Costa won’t play, I have a feeling United will get something out of this. 2-2.
Richard Keys: It is almost exactly three months since Van Gaal’s first match in charge at Old Trafford. He invited us to give our verdict at the end of that period of time so here’s mine…C+.
During the same period last season after the same number of matches I would have given David Moyes a B. Van Gaal has one more point but he has not played Manchester City, Liverpool or Chelsea which Moyes had. Moyes was also top of his Champions League group and had put Liverpool out of the League Cup and Van Gaal has had £150m (Dh886m) to spend, so this is certainly a big test for him.
I think Costa will play in this match and that Mourinho has been stringing us along all week and if he does United are in trouble. Andy is right when he talks about United’s back four. They got badly exposed at West Brom last week and I am not sure Van Gaal fancies Luke Shaw at all. He is a youngster so he has got time to learn but to pay so much money for him at this stage of his career smacked a little bit of desperation.
I have never bought into Phil Jones because I don’t think he is good enough to play for Man United and the rest of them are average so they are not in great shape at the back.
Mourinho he will be happy with a draw, but he will go there with the clear intention of winning and do what he did to Man City. He won’t be gung-ho because that is not his style but Chelsea can play within themselves and still win. They are better all over the park and if Costa plays United won’t know what to do with him. 2-1 away win.
West Ham v Man City
AG: City’s 4-1 against Spurs flattered them and they were poor in their midweek Champions League game so they need to reassert their authority. West Ham have done ok so far this season but their form can’t last .2-1 away win.
RK: We have discussed Man City’s frailties many times and they were exposed again in midweek against CSKA Moscow. West Ham are good enough to ask a few questions. 1-1.
Liverpool v Hull
AG: Hull were unlucky not to win at Arsenal last week but Liverpool need to exorcise the ghost of the mauling Real Madrid gave them in midweek and because this is at Anfield they will win this 2-0.
RK: Mario Balotelli was a bad buy, but you can’t blame him for what happened against Real. Collectively, Liverpool were woeful. Hull played really well against Arsenal and I think they can get a draw here. 1-1.
Southampton v Stoke
AG: The week after the Lord Mayor’s show for Southampton following that 8-0 win over Sunderland. Their home record is superb but Stoke are tough to beat. 1-1
RK: The fixtures have fallen kindly for Southampton and the mood they are in, I can’t see anything other than another win. 3-1.
Sunderland v Arsenal
AG: The Sunderland players need to make amends for their pathetic performance at Southampton but the Gunners have more quality and I think they will nick this 2-1.
RK: Gus Poyet was lucky not to lose his job after what happened at Southampton and if they get turned over again by Arsenal he might be out of the door. Arsenal are too good. 2-0 away win.
West Brom v Crystal Palace
AG: West Brom were lucky to get a draw against United but they are playing well and although Palace have been impressive under Neil Warnock they won’t get anything here. 3-1 home win.
RK: Home advantage will give the Baggies the edge over Palace who suffered a bit of a wheel wobble against Chelsea last week. 2-1 home victory.
Swansea v Leicester
AG: Swansea’s good start has evaporated with no wins in their last five. That needs to change and because Leicester’s early form has deserted them I’ll 2-0 home win.
RK: I was hugely disappointed with Leicester at Newcastle and if that’s all they have got to offer at this stage of the season they could find themselves in trouble. Good shout by Andy. 2-0.
Burnley v Everton
AG: I would like to see some light at the end of the tunnel for Burnley but I can’t. Everton have found a bit of form. 2-0.
RK: I would love to see Burnley win but the truth is they are not good enough for this league. Everton look to have got their act together so I fancy a 2-1 away win.
Tottenham v Newcastle
AG: Spurs had a terrific result in midweek and although half that team won’t play in this match I think they will have too much for Newcastle. 3-0.
RK: Newcastle won this fixture last season but it won’t happen again. Tottenham to win 2-0.
QPR v Aston Villa
AG: I was impressed with QPR against Liverpool last week and if they can carry that sort of fighting spirit into this game they can win it. 2-1.
RK: QPR did ok against Liverpool but let’s face it, Brendan Rodgers’ side are hardly on top of their game at the moment. However, I think Villa are on a downward slide so I agree with Andy, 2-1.