These are the 5 biggest stories to watch out for in El Clasico
1. Definitive blow or game changer in Pichichi race?
For Ronaldo - who seems to value individual awards the most - a strong haul on Saturday could set him up to see out the rest of the season on top
Barcelona against Real Madrid always ensures the presence of some of the finest attacking players in the world, and Saturday’s encounter is no different. The league’s three leading goalscorers this season will be sharing the Camp Nou pitch: Cristiano Ronaldo is top of the pile with 28 goals; Luis Suarez, on 26, will be looking to overtake the Portuguese in the coming weeks; meanwhile, an incredible post-Christmas burst has given Lionel Messi, now on 22, an outside chance of overhauling the pair.
El Clasico is an excellent opportunity for any of the three players to dramatically alter the Pichichi race. For Ronaldo – who seems to value individual awards the most – a strong haul on Saturday could set him up to see out the rest of the season on top, while the added carrot of trying to disprove theories that he is now unable to deliver in the big games is likely to make him even more dangerous than usual.
Suarez is seven strikes away from setting a new career best in front of goal, and what better way to cap that feat than by taking the Pichichi en route? The Uruguayan has arguably been Barça’s most important forward this season; considering he scored a brace in his last game against Madrid, it would be unwise to bet against a decent return at the Camp Nou.
Trailing the league’s current top scorer by six goals means Messi has the biggest challenge of the contenders, but if there’s one player on the planet capable of turning it around it’s the Argentine. Messi has scored 16 league goals in 14 games since the turn of the year – including two hat-tricks – and as the all-time leading scorer in this fixture, the biggest stage is one that clearly inspires him. Curiously, Messi hasn’t scored against Madrid since March 2014, so he’s probably due a few.
2. The pressure on Florentino Perez
Madrid’s 1-0 derby loss to Atletico Madrid last February brought criticism that even he couldn’t evade, a large section of the club’s support directing chants of “Florentino, resign!” towards the Santiago Bernabeu’s presidential box
Florentino Perez is an expert at dodging bullets, but Real Madrid’s 1-0 derby loss to Atletico Madrid last February brought criticism that even he couldn’t evade, a large section of the club’s support directing chants of “Florentino, resign!” towards the Santiago Bernabeu’s presidential box. In the month since, calls for a change of guard in the Spanish capital have continued, the loudest voice being prominent socio and one-time presidential aspirant Eugenio Martinez Bravo, who argued last week that Perez should go in the summer “for the good of Real Madrid”.
Martinez Bravo points to the “embarrassment” of incidents involving David de Gea, Denis Cheryshev and Karim Benzema as evidence that a change in leadership is needed. A humiliating defeat against Barcelona on Saturday would certainly give further fuel to his cause.
A commanding win, on the other hand, would provide Perez with a much-needed boost. It could even be the beginning of a change in momentum that would be further aided by a convincing Champions League run. Even by the high standards of El Clasico, there is a lot resting on this game for Florentino in the long run.
3. A final bow for Clasico veterans?
Both Madrid and Barça are set to make significant changes to their squads this summer, which will almost certainly mean letting a few veterans of the big fixture go
For some players, this weekend’s edition of El Clasico may well prove to be their last. Both Madrid and Barça are set to make significant changes to their squads this summer, which will almost certainly mean letting a few veterans of the big fixture go.
For better or for worse, Pepe’s name is forever associated with the extremely tense Clasicos of the Jose Mourinho-Pep Guardiola era; at 33, his time at the Bernabeu is now nearing its end. His old sparring partner Dani Alves has been the subject of fresh transfer rumours of late, with the talk likely to turn into something more tangible now that the Blaugrana have Aleix Vidal ready to step in and take his place.
At the other end of the age spectrum is Isco, who lit up Madrid’s October 2014 3-1 win over Barça but ended his last game against them with a red card. Still unable to tie down a regular starting place after three seasons at the Bernabeu, trying his fortunes elsewhere next season looks increasingly probable.
The departure of any of the players mentioned above would pale in comparison to that of Ronaldo, but leaving Madrid this summer seems more likely than ever before. That would truly be an end of an era for El Clasico: so will it inspire Ronaldo to pull out all the stops?
4. Casemiro’s moment of truth
The pivot had started seven games in a row before Barcelona came to town on November 21st, yet at the moment of truth Rafa Benitez unceremoniously dropped him from his starting line-up
El Clasico naturally draws attention towards the big stars, but one of the most significant stories of the last instalment was that of unassuming midfielder Casemiro. The pivot had started seven games in a row before Barcelona came to town on November 21, yet at the moment of truth Rafa Benitez unceremoniously dropped him from his starting line-up, caving to pressure from above. Not having a defensive midfielder to contend with certainly helped Barcelona steamroll their eternal rivals 4-0.
Fast-forward to the present day and Casemiro has returned from ostracism to again become a regular under Zinedine Zidane, who has started him in Madrid’s last five matches. Zizou looks likely to stick to his guns and give the Brazilian a chance at the Camp Nou. Can he prove a point by making a difference for Madrid?
5. The Cruyff factor
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Saturday will be Barcelona’s first match since the death of Johan Cruyff, undoubtedly the most important figure in the modern history of the club. It feels fitting that El Clasico will provide the stage for the tributes: as a player, the Dutchman was key in a 5-0 away win on Madrid soil in 1974, while 20 years later he would orchestrate another 5-0 victory over los Blancos, this time as a manager.
This weekend, supporters will hold up a mosaic reading “Thank you, Johan”, and the same words will appear on Barça’s shirts. Cruyff would probably be more interested on what’s happening once the ball is moving, though, and the most fitting tribute would be Barça producing a performance worthy of the legend. The hosts will be keen to do his legacy proud.