Both sides have little to play for, with Madrid’s focus on their upcoming Champions League final and their top four spot secure. Barcelona do have the chance to finish the first unbeaten season in Spanish league history since La Liga switched to a 38-game slate.
But the ferocity of this rivalry never dims, and plenty of the stars on show will want to make a statement in the latest installment of El Clasico.
Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo
Messi has produced yet another season in which words fail to do him justice. That Barcelona are still unbeaten in the league is almost single-handedly down to his efforts, as he has dragged his side out of the jaws of defeat time after time this season.
He’s also the king of the Clasico, having scored more goals than any other player in the fixture. It’s a clash he always relishes, with Sunday providing an opportunity to rub Barcelona’s domestic superiority in Madrid’s faces. Messi is always expected to produce magic, but Madrid bring out an entirely different trait in him: ruthlessness.
It’s a testament to Ronaldo‘s form since the turn of the year that despite Messi’s status as the best player in La Liga this season, it’s the Real Madrid man who’s favoured to win the Ballon d’Or. That’s largely down to Madrid’s European form, as they’ve reached a third straight Champions League final while Barca crashed out in the quarter-finals, but it showcases Ronaldo’s perseverance.
His hopes of winning the Pichichi are all but over, having scored eight fewer league goals than Messi, but that target will motivate him on Sunday. A goal or two is a reasonable expectation.
Andres Iniesta vs Luka Modric
It’s a grand occasion for Iniesta, his final Clasico, a chance to illuminate one last fixture against his bitter rivals. There’s been controversy surrounding the fact that Madrid aren’t giving Barcelona a guard of honour, but Zinedine Zidane has promised that his side will pay tribute to the departing midfielder in some way.
What Barcelona will want more than accolades from their rivals is a parting gift from their legend, a farewell virtuoso performance. Iniesta is asked to do less and less in this Barcelona side, but with little to play for on Sunday, he should be set free to dominate this game.
Madrid’s answer to Iniesta has seen a slight dip in form in comparison to the lofty standards of last season, when Modric and his colleagues Toni Kroos and Casemiro were considered the best midfield in the world. The Croat remains Madrid’s chief midfield creator, a responsibility that will carry greater importance on Sunday given Isco’s injury.
Zidane has said this game, like Madrid’s other remaining league fixtures, will serve as a way to maintain intensity for the Champions League final. That’s the perfect approach for Modric, whose tribute to Iniesta could be a starring performance of his own.
Gerard Pique vs Sergio Ramos
All combatants in El Clasico always know the significance of the game, but nonetheless it seems to matter more to Pique than to anyone else, at least on his own side.
He arguably provided the greatest motivation for Barcelona this season by remarking after his side’s Super Copa defeat to Madrid that this was the first time he’d felt inferior to Madrid.
That will make Sunday’s fixture sweeter for him, as Madrid come to town with Barca already crowned champions, 15 points ahead of their rivals. It’s a chance for him to stick the boot in and re-establish Barcelona’s superiority.
Ramos is the perfect foil for Pique, providing the same passion and, in the case of this fixture, disdain for the opposition his counterpart does for Barcelona.
Even with a potential third straight Champions League title on its way, this will hurt for Ramos, leading his side out at the Camp Nou to face a team that already league champions and so far ahead of his own in the table.
That pain will motivate him, not that Ramos can play any other way than his combination of elegant but no-holds-barred defender, plus wind-up artist. Shocking fact: he and Pique aren’t too different.
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’?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.