El Clasico: Real Madrid will be desperate to ruin Barcelona's unbeaten record

Andy West 5/05/2018
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Zinedine Zidane and Ernesto Valverde

After wrapping up the league title with last weekend’s victory over Deportivo La Coruna, Barcelona are returning home to celebrate in Sunday’s clash against none other than bitter rivals Real Madrid.

The visitors are also in a celebratory mood after sneaking into the Champions League Final with Tuesday’s nervy 2-2 draw against Bayern Munich, so this late-season Clasico is a slightly unusual affair between two teams who are both satisfied with their season’s achievements.

However, there’s still plenty to play for as we discover by looking at the game’s three big talking points.

CAN BARCA STAY ‘INVINCIBLE’?

Ernesto Valverde and Zindine Zidane

Ernesto Valverde and Zindine Zidane

The league title might have already been secured for the seventh time in ten seasons, but there is still one significant challenge for Barcelona in their remaining four games: preserving their unbeaten record to become the only team in La Liga history to go a whole season without defeat.

This game is by far the biggest challenge to that milestone, with Sunday’s Clasico followed by home games against Villarreal and Real Sociedad and an away trip to Levante.

And although their main objective for the season has already been achieved, the potential of becoming ‘the Catalan Invincibles’ is sure to be a big motivating factor for Ernesto Valverde’s men – and you can be doubly certain that if there’s one team they don’t want to suffer their first defeat against, it’s Real Madrid.

Conversely, however, Zinedine Zidane’s team have their pride at stake after suffering a humiliating 3-0 home defeat to Barca earlier in the season, and they would dearly love to regain some bragging rights by ending their bitter rival’s quest for a perfect season.

So the game might mean nothing in terms of silverware, but there is still plenty to play for.

INIESTA TO START FINAL CLASICO? 

Andres Iniesta

Andres Iniesta

One player will be firmly in centre stage as he competes in El Clasico for the very last time: departing Barca skipper Andres Iniesta, who is hoping to start after recovering from a minor injury which forced him to skip training earlier this week.

Iniesta could be given an additional tribute before the game by receiving a guard of honour from both sets of players, thereby neatly solving a simmering dispute over the traditional ‘pasillo’ which is given to newly-crowned La Liga champions by their next opponents.

Zidane – probably following orders from club president Florentino Perez – has stated that his team will not follow that tradition by lining up in salute of Barca’s players, but the compromise of joining the opposition in a pre-game homage to Iniesta would be a diplomatic solution if a late agreement can be reached.

If Iniesta is fit to start, Valverde will have to choose between Philippe Coutinho, Paulinho and Ousmane Dembele for the remaining slot in midfield, with former Liverpool man Coutinho looking his most likely option.

REAL TO BEGIN FINAL PREPARATIONS?

Gareth Bale

Gareth Bale

Although they would love to gain a morale-boosting Clasico victory, in reality the game is just a footnote in Madrid’s season as Zidane’s men start to look ahead to the Champions League Final clash with Liverpool in three weeks.

That presents Zidane with a dilemma: does he go with his strongest possible eleven, or should he indulge in some squad rotation to rest his key players following their emotionally, mentally and physically draining midweek semi-final triumph against Bayern Munich?

That’s perhaps a false question because it’s not really clear what Zidane’s strongest team actually is. The French coach has run through an almost endless variety of different formations and personnel in the last few weeks, giving the strong impression he doesn’t have an ideal starting line-up in mind for the showdown in Kiev.

One player who particularly needs a strong performance is Gareth Bale after seemingly dropping to the bottom of Zidane’s pecking order in the attacking positions, so expect to see the Welshman fired up – possibly even playing for his future at the club – if he is given a chance to impress.

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Real Madrid have chance to end Barcelona's unbeaten season and other talking points ahead of El Clasico

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The latest edition of El Clasico is full of subplots and intrigue.

Recently-crowned La Liga champions Barcelona will hope to keep their unbeaten streak intact when Real Madrid visit for El Clasico on Sunday.

Barca have already won a domestic double and are bidding to finish the campaign without suffering a single league defeat, while Los Blancos are also on a high after booking their place in the Champions League final this week.

Here Press Association Sport details some of the talking points ahead of the game.

BARCELONA’S UNBEATEN RECORD

Real have an extra incentive to beat their great rivals, who are on the verge of completing the first 38-game unbeaten season in La Liga history. Ernesto Valverde’s side merely need to avoid a loss in their final four fixtures – three of which are at home – and the most difficult of those is the visit of Real.

The prospect of achieving such a landmark means both clubs will surely be at full strength on Sunday. Real won at the Nou Camp in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup in August and have not lost there since March 2015.

Barcelona continued their unbeaten run with a win against Deportivo last Sunday.

Barcelona continued their unbeaten run with a win against Deportivo last Sunday.

INIESTA’S FINAL CLASICO

Midfielder Andres Iniesta has already confirmed he will depart the only club he has ever played for at the end of this season, meaning this is due to be his final Clasico. However, the 33-year-old just “did specific work” during Thursday’s training session, according to a post on Barcelona’s official website, having only appeared off the bench late on against Deportivo.

Despite being a player that has played a huge part in Barcelona’s Clasico victories down the years, he may be restricted to a minor role this time around.

Iniesta will be playing against Real Madrid for the final time.

Iniesta will be playing against Real Madrid for the final time.

NO GUARD OF HONOUR

There was a tweet sent out from Real Madrid’s account congratulating Barcelona when they were confirmed as La Liga champions last weekend, but there is unlikely to be a guard of honour at the Nou Camp too. Known as a ‘pasillo’, Real were given one by Barca prior to walloping them 4-1 in 2008 but they were not afforded such a reception last December after winning the Club World Cup.

Zinedine Zidane has previously said his men will not perform one for Barca this weekend. Might that add fuel to the fire?

Madrid were given a guard of honour at the Nou Camp in 2008.

Madrid were given a guard of honour at the Nou Camp in 2008.

MESSI V RONALDO

As ever when these two sides meet, all eyes will be on the two marquee names – Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The former has scored 43 goals for Barcelona this season while Ronaldo has 42 to his credit but has not registered in his previous two appearances, which were in both legs against Bayern Munich in the Champions League.

In 14 appearances for Real at the Nou Camp, Ronaldo has scored 11 times. At the same stadium, Messi has not scored from open play in a Clasico since October 2012.

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Ernesto Valverde insists Barcelona are still the best team in Spain

Alex Broun 29/04/2018
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Midfield legend Andres Iniesta is set to quit while arch rivals Real Madrid are prepping for a 13th Champions League, but Ernesto Valverde insists his Barcelona side are still the best team in Spain.

A win at Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday would see Barcelona seal their 25th La Liga title, and first since 2016, with four games to spare.

Having wrapped up the first part of a league and Cup double with a 5-0 Copa del Rey final rout of Sevilla last week, Valverde insisted Saturday: “When the league started in August, we were all on the start line and we all know that, at the finish, it’s the best team who wins.”

Watch his press conference below.

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