In the summer, Barcelona was wallowing after losing Neymar to PSG and being humbled by Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup. Ahead of a Christmas Clasico, it's Barcelona that is in position to strengthen its title credentials while further complicating its rival's plans.
Back in August, after losing 5-1 on aggregate to Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup, Ernesto Valverde, having just finished his first preseason as Barcelona’s new manager, sat in the press room and reflected on his team’s poor performance.
“They [Real Madrid] had a sense of energy, pressed more intensely and punished on our mistakes,” he said speaking in the post-match conference.
But as the conference went on, Valverde highlighted another reason for the loss. “Things have happened this preseason that can affect the team’s imbalance. So we have to find a new balance, play well, all-around and find results.”
For a quiet, reserved, disciplined man such as Valverde, one can only imagine how difficult this past summer must have been. Neymar’s transfer saga, Pique’s famous response to the transfer, the actual transfer and Paulinho’s somewhat controversial arrival–they all contributed to that imbalance.
Four months later, though, and the Catalan giants sit undefeated and on top of La Liga with an imposing +35 goal differential, six points above second-place Atletico and 11 points clear of Real Madrid, which has a game in hand.
This is the third-biggest point disparity in head-to-head meetings between these teams (16 points in 2012-2013, 13 points in 1990-1991), which is why it’s almost impossible to oversell the importance of Saturday’s El Clasico.
A victory for Barcelona, and the leader would pad its lead after playing arguably its most difficult game of the season. In the context of La Liga and what it means for Barcelona’s title hopes, it’s enormous.
It has been a strong first half of the season for Valverde’s squad and much of the club’s success, naturally, is thanks to the prodigious talent of Lionel Messi, who has directly contributed to 19 goals so far this season. His 14 goals and five assists have been a pivotal factor on why Barça has delivered good results.
But the other component is attributed to Valverde himself.
Coming from Athletic Bilbao, the 53-year-old has introduced a new sense of discipline within the Barça set-up. Yes, you can still marvel at the possession-based game, but now the attention to defensive detail is just as important, and that’s all thanks to him.
Barcelona doesn’t concede many goals–seven in the league to be exact–nor does it allow many goals from dead-ball situations, making it a very tough team to break down. The Paulinho move has proven to be exactly what was needed: a strong, resilient anchor in the middle as well as a provider of goals. The Brazilian has six league goals in league play–two more than Cristiano Ronaldo.
Losing Ousmane Dembele to injury back in September was not as tragic as most presumed it would be, as players like Paco Alcacer and Gerard Deulofeu have helped contribute to fill the attacking void.
Unfortunately, both are reportedly out for Saturday’s match, so those responsibilities will most likely fall to Denis Suarez, who will line up alongside Luis Suarez and Messi. Dembele and Rafinha have returned to training, but it would be extremely surprising to see them enter the field of action anytime before January.
At the back, Sergi Roberto seems to be getting the nod ahead of Nelson Semedo, who hasn’t featured in the league since the 1-1 draw against Valencia last month. This will be a crucial matchup on Saturday, as whoever takes the role will have to deal with Marcelo’s surging runs.
The biggest issue for Valverde, however, will be how the central defensive partnership works out, especially now, since the impressive Samuel Umtiti suffered a hamstring injury on Dec. 2 against Celta Vigo and is out of action until February.
The forgotten man, Thomas Vermaelen, has taken full advantage of this situation by playing well in recent matches and forming a solid partnership with Gerard Pique.
But Javier Macherano’s return to full health means that the manager has to choose: Vermaelen’s form or Mascherano’s experience?
Even though he won’t directly admit it, Zinedine Zidane knows too well that this Saturday is a must-win for Real Madrid if there is any hope of repeating last season’s success in the league.
A victory at home won’t only close the gap on Barcelona and the other teams above Los Blancos, but it will also heal some wounds from how the season started in the first place.
From a transfer perspective, the summer was a quiet one for Madrid, where mega-transfer deals were substituted with domestic purchases and a bigger focus on club-grown talent. Academy graduates like Dani Carvajal and Lucas Vazquez combined with a young Spanish acquisition such as Dani Ceballos created a new type of Madrid. These are not the Galacticos anymore.
Alvaro Morata (Chelsea), Danilo (Manchester City) and James Rodriguez (Bayern Munich, on loan) all left, but perhaps the most valuable departure was Pepe, moving to Besiktas. As the season develops, it’s quite apparent that his leadership and defensive resilience at the back has been sorely missed.
The 5-1 win over Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup was also a bittersweet moment for Zidane, as this was the fixture in which Ronaldo was sent off for pushing a referee and was therefore suspended for four league matches.
The ban disrupted Zidane’s plans for the beginning of the season, and despite the fact Madrid won its opening match against Deportivo la Coruña, it failed to win its first three at home. This was a huge blow in momentum for Madrid, and even when Ronaldo came back after suspension, it took some time for the Portuguese star to get back to form.
Nevertheless, the form did return, as Ronaldo has now scored eight goals in his last seven matches across all competitions–including the winner in the Club World Cup final vs. Gremio on the heels of winning a record-tying fifth Ballon d'Or.
Gareth Bale, who played the final 10 minutes of the Club World Cup final, is likely headed for a reserve role in his return from injury, though Zidane could always pull a surprise and start the Welshman if he feels that it's necessary and prudent. Reports suggest otherwise, but given the fact that this is a must-win for his club, it wouldn't be a total shock.
Off the field, there are always sides stories. Whether it is Atletico Madrid's allegations of Barcelona tapping up Antoine Griezmann, Barcelona's seemingly never-ending quest to land Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool or Real Madrid's apparent flirtations with Neymar–all while Real Madrid and PSG get set to tangle in the Champions League round of 16. To add more fuel to the fire, Barcelona is reportedly rejecting El Pasillo (Guard of Honor) for Real Madrid prior to kickoff, despite its recent Club World Cup achievement.
“In this club, the guard of honor is usually made when we participate in the Champions League or La Liga ... and this is not the case," said Barcelona director Guillermo Amor, as reported by Marca.
Regardless of the pregame festivities, Zidane knows too well that the best way for Real Madrid to receive any kind of respect and boost in the league table is to earn a victory against your biggest rival.
We’ll find out on Saturday whether his Real Madrid is up to the challenge, or if Barcelona will effectively dethrone the champion with five months to go in the season.