And while a win for the Catalans will take the league title further away from Zinedine Zidane‘s men, a few key battles might decide the outcome of the pre-Christmas clash.
It might seem rather odd to highlight two full-backs as a major key to the game’s tactical battle, but Spain international teammates Dani Carvajal and Jordi Alba are fundamental to their respective team’s attacking plans.
Alba, in particular, has become exceptionally important for Barcelona since the departure of Neymar, literally filling the void left by the Brazilian’s absence to become a major attacking presence down the left-hand side, being credited with five assists so far this season.
Alba possesses a great understanding with Lionel Messi, whose angled passes into the runs of the speedy full-back have been a highlight of the campaign so far.
Directly up against Alba will be Carvajal, whose similarly impressive athletic abilities allow him to cover the entire flank both in attack and defence, especially if Zidane persists with the narrow midfield diamond he has favoured in recent weeks.
However, the surging runs of Alba may force Carvajal into a more defensive approach than usual, and the battle between these two international colleagues will be very important to the outcome.
It’s stating the obvious that Messi has the central role in Barca’s creative play, but this season in particular he has become even more important than ever, filling two roles at once as a fairly conservative team’s main playmaker and chief goalscorer.
Under new coach Ernesto Valverde, Messi has now abandoned the right-wing role he occupied during Luis Enrique’s reign, instead being given a free hand to roam wherever he sees fit in a 4-4-1-1 formation.
Perhaps more than ever, he is dropping deep into midfield to spark attacks before then bursting into the box to finish them off, and the man who will have to stop him is Casemiro, Real’s physical and positionally disciplined enforcer in the centre of the pitch.
Casemiro is an outstanding defensive presence and certainly has the ability to shackle Messi, but he has a tendency for rash lunges and must be careful to avoid conceding needless free-kicks in and around the penalty area – especially if Messi can coax him into picking up a yellow card early on.
Barcelona fans were concerned to say the least when defensive rock Samuel Umtiti went down injured earlier this month, especially with Javier Mascherano also sidelined. Those absences left Thomas Vermaelen as Valverde’s only option to partner Gerard Pique, and it was feared the Belgian would be badly exposed as he made his first Barca appearances for nearly two years.
Vermaelen, however, has been excellent during his four games in the team, looking comfortable and assured, with no signs of the rustiness or hesitancy you might expect from a man with so little football under his belt in the last couple of years.
This weekend he has one of the most challenging opponents any central defender could face: Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Portuguese star is back in form after a slow start to the season, scoring eight goals in his last seven games, and it can be taken for granted he will have at least half a dozen attempts on goal.
Vermaelen’s task is to ensure those chances are as difficult as possible – as they would say in basketball, he has to prevent Ronaldo from getting ‘good looks’. If he succeeds, Barca will be well on their way to another clean sheet.
Here’s a look at five key stats.
EL CLASICO FORM ON MADRID’S SIDE
Barcelona may be unbeaten in the league this season but as far as the most recent Clasico meetings are concerned, Madrid are the ones with the upper hand.
The Catalans have won just once in the last five meetings between the two rivals, while Madrid have won three times.
MADRID ON THE VERGE OF MILESTONES
The hosts will be looking to score their 400th goal against Barcelona on Saturday and should they win, they will also have secured their 100th Clasico triumph in official as well as unofficial games.
RONALDO AND MESSI GUNNING FOR 2017 SUPREMACY
Ronaldo may have picked up all the accolades this year but Messi can still get one over the Portuguese star. Both players are locked on 53 goals for club and country in 2017.
Robert Lewandowski also has 53 to his name but doesn’t play again until 2018 while Edinson Cavani is also set to finish the year on 52. A straight shoot-out between Ronaldo and Messi in El Clasico will probably determine Europe’s top scorer for 2017, unless of course Harry Kane (50) can take advantage of his two games against Burnley and Southampton to leapfrog them all.
BARCELONA SCORING IS A GOOD BET
Regardless of whether they win the game or not, Barcelona hitting the back of the net at the Bernabeu is a fairly safe bet. The visitors have scored in each of the last 19 El Clasicos. Perhaps keeping a clean sheet will be their key to victory?
El Clasico has a reputation for being a heated affair and its disciplinary record certainly speaks for itself. A total of 416 bookings have been issued in this encounter with Madrid accounting for 370 yellows and Barcelona for 346.
Meanwhile, Los Blancos once again leads the way with send-offs, registering 31 to Barcelona’s 24.
Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane insisted Cristiano Ronaldo is 100 percent fit for Saturday’s huge El Clasico clash against Barcelona despite playing a limited role in training this week.
And the Frenchman urged Ronaldo to put his perceived desire for an improved contract from the European champions on the back burner to help Real get back into the La Liga title race.
“He is 100 percent, he trained today and that is all that interests me,” Zidane said on Friday.
Ronaldo, 32, said he would like to retire at Real after scoring the winner in last weekend’s Club World Cup final, but that decision depended on those that run the club.
The Portuguese star signed a new deal to 2021 with Real just over a year ago, but has since seen Neymar’s move to Paris Saint Germain for a world record fee and a bumper new deal for Lionel Messi at Barcelona reportedly see them leapfrog Ronaldo as the world’s best paid player.
“Cristiano just has to think about what he has done, what he is doing and what he means to this club,” added Zidane.
“He deserves the full respect of the club and he has it. After the holidays we will talk about that for sure. At the moment the only important thing is the game tomorrow and for that he is 100 percent.”
Ronaldo only returned to full training on Friday after receiving some rough treatment from Brazilians Gremio last weekend. However, he has rediscovered top form in recent weeks with five goals in his last four outings.
Zidane’s men trail Barca by 11 points in fourth place behind Atletico Madrid and Valencia, but they do have a game in hand on their rivals.
Real captain Sergio Ramos claimed this week his side are “obliged to win more than ever” given their deficit in the title race, but Zidane claimed tomorrow’s result won’t be definitive no matter what happens.
“There is no anxiety. We need to think about playing a good match and not look at whether the difference is 11, eight or 25 points,” said Zidane. “The only thing we can control is playing well tomorrow.”
Barca are undefeated in their last 24 games. However, they were beaten in both legs as Real romped to victory 5-1 on aggregate in the Spanish Super Cup in coach Ernesto Valverde’s first two games in charge back in August.
Back then Barca were mired in institutional crisis caused by Neymar’s departure. Yet, Valverde has cannily reconstructed the Catalans around a sold defensive base that has conceded just eight goals in that 24-game unbeaten run and relied on the brilliance of Messi going forward.
“It’s true that at the time we had just lost an important player for the team and we had the negative result here that conditioned the tie. At their place, they played very well and were the better team,” said Valverde.
“Since then we have got better bit-by-bit and got the results that mean we are top of the league.”
The tension on the field could be accompanied by an even more hostile atmosphere for Barca than normal in the capital in the wake of regional elections in Catalonia that saw three parties favouring independence for the region from Spain retain an absolute majority in the Catalan parliament.
However, Valverde played down concerns as Barca also visited to Madrid to face Atletico in October without problems amid heightened political tension following violent clashes in a banned independence referendum called by separatists.
“The atmosphere tomorrow will be good, I have no doubt about that,” he added.
“We went to play at Atletico Madrid close to October 1 when there was a lot of talk about the reception we would get and I think as a football man it is one of the best atmospheres I have seen. There was a good feeling between the teams, the fans and I expect tomorrow will be the same.
“Logically the Bernabeu will support their team, but I think it will be a good game.”