Barca and Madrid seek boost in crisis Clasico between giants in decline
La Liga’s most important Clasico for years might also be the most mediocre on Sunday as Barcelona and Real Madrid each fight to lift the gloom by deepening the other’s sense of crisis.
Two points separate the league’s leading pair, making this weekend’s meeting at the Santiago Bernabeu a potentially significant checkpoint in a back-and-forth title race, particularly if Barcelona win and extend their advantage to five.
It will be more significant than last season, when Barca kicked off the calendar’s second Clasico nine points clear of Madrid, or the season before, when they were already 15 in front.
But while a tussle at the top of the table is welcome in terms of intrigue, there is an unmistakeable sense of decline hanging over what has become the world’s most famous club fixture.
“It’s a race of two lame ducks, both of them are bad right now, that’s the reality,” former Real Madrid forward Jorge Valdano told Onda Cero on Wednesday night.
“Barca’s recovery is more down to Real Madrid than Barca themselves.”
For both teams, the build-up has been bumpy, with Madrid particularly wounded after a 2-1 defeat at home to Manchester City which has left them on the brink of exiting the Champions League in the last 16 for a second year in a row.
It might have been less concerning had it not come on the back of one win in four and had City not appeared so superior.
“Things really do look bleak,” wrote Marca on Thursday. “The only takeaway can be that this Madrid side simply aren’t up to it.”
They might be about to feel the kind of frustration that has haunted Barcelona during a run of four consecutive years without making it past the semis.
Barca’s own problems recently have largely been to do with their president and board, but the emergency signing of striker Martin Braithwaite from Leganes exposed muddled thinking that has affected the squad too.
“We don’t have a deep squad because, unfortunately, that’s how it was planned,” said Sergio Busquets on Tuesday.
Barcelona and Real Madrid’s combined 108 points taken at this stage is their second lowest since 2007, beaten only by last year’s even lower total of 105.
Barca have been more reliant than ever on Lionel Messi to paper over the cracks in their defence while Madrid’s defence has covered their lack of firepower up front, where they remain without an elite scorer, despite the impressive early-season form of Karim Benzema.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s shadow still lingers, in part because Messi’s brilliance deserves a rival, in the league, but particularly the Clasico, where Ronaldo’s presence is undeniably missed. He is not the only one. Neymar was sold while Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta retired.