EL CLASICO: Battle-hardened Madrid host Barcelona at Bernabeu

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Barcelona travel to Real Madrid tonight in what is set to be one of the most pivotal El Clasico meetings in recent memory, with both sides fast closing in on stuttering Atletico Madrid at the top of the La Liga table.

Barcelona head into the game two points ahead of Real Madrid and aiming to keep the pressure on leaders Atletico. Only three points separate the top three as we head towards the run-in, and tonight’s game could go a long way to deciding where title ends up at the end of the season.

Atletico’s loss away to Sevilla last weekend has blown the Spanish title race wide open. For the first time in more than three months, The Catalans depend on their own results to be crowned La Liga champions. They travel to the Spanish capital unbeaten in 19 league games; win their remaining nine fixtures and they will finish top for the first time in two years.

With Atletico not in action until tomorrow night, Barcelona will overtake the long-time leaders by avoiding defeat against Los Blancos.

The Catalan giants warmed up for this contest with a 1-0 triumph over Real Valladolid on Monday evening, the decisive goal coming from Ousmane Dembele during the closing stages.

Real Madrid are also playing with belief and real momentum. Zinedine Zidane’s side are flying high after their comprehensive 3-1 victory over Liverpool in their Champions League quarter-final first leg on Tuesday.

Real Madrid beat FC Barcelona 3- 1 at the Camp Nou last October. This time, Los Blancos will have to play the game just four days after beating Liverpool and barely three days before the return leg at Anfield, so coach Zidane and his staff will need to make sure that every player is fresh and ready to go, given that Barcelona will be rested.

Real Madrid had a number of injury issues to contend with for their European clash against Liverpool, not least to starting centre-back duo Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, but Zidane produced a tactical masterclass to restrict Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane to just one away goal with his makeshift defence.

Nacho and Eder Militao formed a sturdy acquaintanceship, while Lucas Vazquez, a winger by trade, continued his role as an auxiliary right-back in place of the injured Dani Carvajal, performing the duty with merit on Tuesday night. Ferland Mendy was equally impressive on the opposite flank.

The illustrious midfield trident of Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos were naturally dominant and telepathically in sync, providing the nucleus and heartbeat of the side so Karim Benzema, Vinicius Junior and Marco Asensio could run riot up the turf. It’s an XI Zidane will likely stay true to for this weekend’s game.

Eden Hazard remains sidelined, while the convalescing dynamo, Federico Valverde, collected valuable minutes against Jurgen Klopp’s men, entering the fray late on. If Zidane does tinker, it may be with Valverde, potentially keeping Modric on ice for the visit to Merseyside, but in truth, the Frenchman will not be taking this Clasico lightly, particularly with how tight things are at La Liga’s summit. So a full strength team is expected.

For Karim Benzema, the “El Clásico is the greatest game in the world”.

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The Frenchman sat down for an interview with LaLiga as he offered his thoughts on today’s clash: “It’ll be a tough game. Barcelona also like to get on the ball, but so do we. The game will be decided in the middle third. Just like in the reverse fixture, we’ll go out to win because it’s like a cup final for us. I’m in really good shape, both physically and mentally. My body and all of the other bodies in the squad are ready for this really crucial period”.

“For me and everyone, it’s the greatest game in the world and that’s what makes it so special to score in it. When you’re lucky enough to score a goal against them it leaves a different taste in your mouth because it’s a Clásico. Both clubs have great history and it’s a really important game. It was always a dream of mine to play in it. Clásicos are games that everyone watches from a young age and I’m now lucky enough to be playing in them. There’s a lot of pressure before you get out there, so just imagine what it’s like when you’re out on the pitch. However, we enjoy all of the games we play against Barcelona”.

Benzema, who is on track to record the highest-scoring season of his career, also believes that Barcelona will look to keep possession and depend on Argentine captain Lionel Messi to grind out the win.

“They always have possession; they have a good goalkeeper and Messi, the player who does everything for Barcelona. We have to be careful because he is very dangerous,” he warned.

Meanwhile, Barca’s Ansu Fati and Philippe Coutinho remain long-term absentees, the latter of whom may not play again this season, and Gerard Pique faces a race for fitness to be available for this weekend’s match, but Koeman may be able to call upon Sergi Roberto.

Koeman’s latest tactical set-up has ‘Total Football’ written all over it, with Frenkie de Jong, an adherent of Cruyffian principles having progressed through the Ajax academy, recently taking on an esoteric role as a libero in the heart of Barcelona’s defence, a role once perfected by his manager during the club’s ‘Dream Team’ era.

However, De Jong has since issued a message to Koeman, expressing his desire to play in midfield, though he remains happy to fill in where the team needs. “I prefer playing in central midfield, but if it is best for the team that I play at the back or in another position, I’ll do it,” De Jong said.

“We changed the system today and I’ve played in many positions.”

The recent tweak has yielded some huge results in the past few weeks, including a 6-1 win over Real Sociedad, so Koeman may keep the experiment going, with this latest match-up the real acid test for determining just how effective the system is against elite opposition.

One player whom has been looking forward to renewing hostilities with Los Blancos is youngster Pedri.

The teenager got his first taste of the famous fixture earlier this season at the Camp Nou and admits the fixture is “super important” for both sets of supporters.

“I think it’s super important because of what it means to the fans. The supporters really love this game and I used to love watching it, too. Now I’m a footballer I’m really looking forward to it, just as I did the first time around.

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