There is a train of thought – particularly prominent among Barcelona fans – that Real Madrid are in the Champions League semi-finals and three points clear at the top of La Liga not because they deserve it, but because they are lucky.
It’s quite easy to build a case to support that argument, with abundant evidence available as recently as their last two games.
Last weekend, for instance, they were only able to preserve their La Liga advantage over Barca ahead of Sunday’s Clasico thanks to Isco’s winning goal at Sporting Gijon with just five seconds of normal time remaining.
And then, of course, there was Tuesday’s dramatic European adventure against Bayern Munich, which saw Los Blancos advance courtesy of two offside goals in extra time from Cristiano Ronaldo and a highly dubious red card to visiting midfielder Arturo Vidal.
Those two games are only the most recent of several examples of fortune favouring the men from the Bernabeu, who appear to have thrown down so many ‘get out of jail free’ cards this season that manager Zinedine Zidane has regularly been asked whether his team are actually any good, or just lucky.
Naturally, Zidane has rejected such suggestions, offering the old cliche that you make your own luck in this game.
That’s not entirely true because every game contains random bounces of the ball and every team is affected by erroneous refereeing decisions and badly-timed injuries. There is such a thing as luck, and it can benefit some teams more than others.
Zidane: In football there's no such thing as luck. We won the first and second leg against Bayern. We deserved to go through.— SB (@Realmadridplace) April 18, 2017
However, that does not mean Madrid are only competing for a domestic and European double because they are fortunate. In fact, Zidane is largely correct to say that his team should be fully rather than begrudgingly credited for their achievements, because you only get the rub of the green if you put yourself in the right position.
As another cliche goes, if you don’t buy a ticket you won’t win the raffle – and Madrid’s combination of talent and attitude has allowed them to buy more of those metaphorical tickets than anyone else.
Last weekend, for example, Isco would not have scored his winner at Sporting Gijon if his team had not been pushing so hard for a goal.
Looking objectively at the closing stages of that game, it was unsurprising that Madrid found a breakthrough having spent the last 15 minutes more or less permanently camped on the edge of Sporting’s penalty area. A goal was a matter of time, not luck.
Then there’s Sergio Ramos’s habit of popping up with crucial late goals from set-pieces, just as he did to secure a point in the Clasico at Camp Nou in December. “Lucky Madrid!” complain the detractors. “Ramos rescued them again!”
In fact, though, Ramos would not be able to score such goals unless, as they were in Gijon last weekend, his team was on the attack, putting themselves in the position to win corners and free-kicks in the first place.
Ramos’s last set-piece goal was actually ruled out for offside [you see, some decisions do go against them] in stoppage time of the Champions League semi-final first leg at Bayern.
And fascinating television footage showing exactly how that disallowed goal was concocted illustrated just how much work Madrid put into their set-pieces.
The cameras tracked Ramos from the moment the set-piece was won, showing him hatching a plan in whispering tones with Marco Asensio and Nacho. Then Ramos sneakily initiated a high-five with Bayern defender Jerome Boateng, allowing his team-mates to know that this was their ‘target’, before gesturing to taker Toni Kroos to get him up to speed.
As they awaited delivery, Ramos, Asensio and Nacho maintained eye contact to ensure their positioning was right, and when the ball finally came across Asensio and Nacho leapt straight into the path of Boateng, blocking him off and creating a free header for Ramos.
Although they were foiled by an offside flag, the plan was brilliantly executed and obviously repeatedly rehearsed on the training ground. It was preparation, not luck, and that kind of attention to detail has been separating Madrid from their rivals all season.
If it happens again on Sunday night, don’t be surprised – and don’t call it luck.
Real Madrid can take a huge step towards a first La Liga title in five years when they host Barcelona in El Clasico on Sunday.
Madrid lead Barca by three points at the top and have a game in hand on their rivals.
Here, we look at five other Clasicos which have decided the title in recent years.
BARCELONA 2-1 REAL MADRID | MARCH 22, 2015
Luis Suarez scored what he then described as his “most important goal” to tilt the title race decisively in Barca’s favour as they went onto complete a treble of league, Champions League and Copa del Rey.
Cristiano Ronaldo cancelled out Jeremy Mathieu’s early opener.
However, Suarez’s brilliant control and finish early in the second-half handed Barca a four-point lead which they never surrendered in the final 10 games of the season despite Madrid dropping just two more points.
BARCELONA 1-2 REAL MADRID | APRIL, 21 2012
Ronaldo scored the goal that brought down the curtain on Barca’s most successful ever era in Pep Guardiola’s final Clasico in charge.
Madrid travelled to the Camp Nou with a healthy four-point lead and landed the knockout blow when Ronaldo rounded Victor Valdes before slotting home from a narrow angle.
REAL MADRID 0-2 BARCELONA | APRIL, 10 2010
In one of the most hotly contested races ever, Barca won the title in Guardiola’s second season by three points despite Madrid claiming a then club record 96 points.
The difference between the sides came at the Bernabeu as Xavi teed up Lionel Messi and Pedro Rodriguez either side of half-time.
REAL MADRID 2-6 BARCELONA | MAY 2, 2009
Fondly remembered in Catalonia as one of the best Clasico performances of all time.
Largely forgotten, though, is that Madrid had threatened to snatch the title away by winning 17 and drawing one of their previous 18 games.
By doing so they had whittled Barca’s lead at the top down from 12 to four points.
Madrid even took the lead through Gonzalo Higuain, but doubles from Messi and Thierry Henry plus goals from centre-backs Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique completed a famous Barca victory.
BARCELONA 3-3 REAL MADRID | MARCH 10, 2007
The night when Messi truly announced his arrival to the world, but which ultimately handed Madrid the title.
Messi scored all three of Barca’s goals, the first of his now record 21 in Clasicos.
However, all three Messi strikes were equalisers after Ruud van Nistelrooy twice and then Sergio Ramos had put Madrid in front.
Real ended up winning the title thanks to their better head-to-head record against Barca having won 2-0 at the Bernabeu earlier in the season with both sides locked on 76 points.
Sunday will see the latest installment of the bitter rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona, with the La Liga title riding on this edition of El Clasico.
A Real Madrid win would put them six points ahead of their rivals, with a game in hand – which will more or less see them wrap up the title. However, Barcelona would draw level with a win, albeit having played a game more.
With so much riding on the game, here’s a look at three key battles that will go a long way in deciding the outcome of the game.
LIONEL MESSI VS REAL MADRID’S DEFENCE
The Barcelona magician has an excellent overall record against Real Madrid, having scored 21 goals in El Clasico across all competitions, more than any other players. 14 of those have come in La Liga, joint-most with Real Madrid legend Alfredo di Stefano.
But he hasn’t scored in his last six meetings with Real Madrid, with his last El Clasico goal coming in 2014. In those six matches, Messi, who holds the record for most assists in El Clasico history with 13, has only notched one assist.
Have Marcelo and company figured out how to stop the Argentinian? With Neymar’s absence through suspension, the Madrid defence can pay more attention to Messi – although the Barcelona star is more than capable of dealing with a team completely focused on stopping him.
LUIS SUAREZ VS SERGIO RAMOS
While Neymar may be missing, the other member of the MSN triumvirate will be raring to go. Luis Suarez scored the last time these sides met, nodding home a free-kick from close range to put Barcelona in front.
The scorer of the equalising goal in that game? Sergio Ramos, popping up with one of his famous last-gasp goals.
Of course, the reason Suarez vs Ramos is a key battle is not because anyone expects the Los Blancos defender to match Suarez’s goalscoring exploits. Ramos will be tasked with stopping the Uruguayan from adding to his 24 league goals.
Expect this battle to be feisty, with both players capable of getting under the other’s skin. Not to mention, Suarez and Ramos are sure to be among the cadre of players leading the histrionics in a game that always throws up plenty of displays of theatricality.
It's a difficult moment but we have to stand up and keep working. Thanks for your unconditional support. Never ending fight! Força Barça!! pic.twitter.com/dTlp4PgXis— Luis Suarez (@LuisSuarez9) April 19, 2017
ISCO VS ANDRES INIESTA
Although Gareth Bale returned to training on Thursday following an injury lay-off, Isco is likely to get the nod to start, and the young Spaniard has been in fine form. His two goals against Sporting Gijon last week included an injury-time winner that kept Real Madrid in control of the title race.
Isco has long been thought of as the natural heir to players like Xavi and Andres Iniesta in the Spain midfield, and with Iniesta lined up on the opposite side of the pitch, the youngster will get the chance to pit his talents against the Barcelona veteran.
Happy 25th birthday to Isco!— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 21, 2017
He's scored or assisted 10 goals in his last 11 starts for Real Madrid.
Always takes his chance. 🤘 pic.twitter.com/EoH4NvX26m
Iniesta hasn’t hit his usual lofty heights this seasons, as age begins to catch up with the 32-year-old. But El Clasico is the perfect stage for the Barcelona captain to deliver another virtuoso performance.
Which midfield maestro will have the bigger impact on this game?
Andres Iniesta's game by numbers v Real Madrid in November 2015:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 21, 2017
100% take-ons completed
95% pass acc.
Wizard 🔮 pic.twitter.com/8Loy8RjTVR