Real Madrid vs. Barcelona: Previewing El Clasico

Real Madrid are the favorites, but Barcelona can flip the narrative, Los Merengues' season and Gerardo Martino's tenure around completely with just one win.

An era of the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona has come and gone, with the teams beginning a new chapter this season. Pep Guardiola and his disciples have given way to Gerardo Martino, while Carlo Ancelotti appears to have accelerated the process of overtaking the Blaugrana that Jose Mourinho started before his departure this summer.

Despite Barca's victory over Los Merengues at Camp Nou in the fall, this has been the season where the gap between Madrid and Barcelona has finally closed. Madrid have a four-point lead in the table and comfortably dispatched Atletico Madrid in the Copa del Rey semifinals. Neymar hasn't quite found his form again after suffering an injury, while Gareth Bale appears to get better with every game. With Xavi having just recently turned 34, the most valuable passing central midfielder in the world might now be Luka Modrić. Carlo Ancelotti is just a couple of results from being hailed as a genius, while the rumors are already swirling that 'Tata' Martino won't last the summer at Camp Nou.

Of course, that's all just what's happened up until this point, because everything can change on Sunday. A win for Barcelona at the Bernabeu could flip the script completely, putting all the pressure on Madrid in the Copa del Rey final in mid-April. And if Madrid come up short there? Well, assuming they can get by Borussia Dortmund in Champions League -- and they probably will, even if they're reeling domestically -- they're very likely to end up sealing a date with one of their domestic rivals or Pep Guardiola.

Ancelotti's Madrid have been a revelation since that Clasico loss and have a treble in their sights, but they need to avoid defeat on Sunday first. A loss to Barcelona could turn Ancelotti from a hero into a goat quickly, which certainly isn't the case for Martino. His situation is quite the opposite: Tata has nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Maybe Barca aren't in such a bad spot after all.

Team news

Barcelona have the benefit of a mostly clean bill of health for this match, save for the two players that are always out. Carles Puyol hasn't recovered from his knee injury and will be unavailable once again, while midfielder Jonathan Dos Santos also remains sidelined.

Real Madrid have been a bit less fortunate with the timing of some of their injuries. Jese started midweek in Champions League and tore his ACL, so he'll be out for the rest of the season. Alvaro Arbeloa is also out for around a month, while Sami Khedira is trying to recover from an ACL tear of his own. There's a possibility that Khedira is ready for the very end of the season -- and therefore, the World Cup -- but he is still unavailable for this game. Karim Benzema was rested for the Champions League match, but Carlo Ancelotti says he is fully fit.

Projected lineups (left to right)

Real Madrid (4-3-3): Diego Lopez; Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Dani Carvajal; Angel Di Maria, Xabi Alonso, Luka Modrić; Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale

Barcelona (4-3-3): Victor Valdes; Jordi Alba, Javier Mascherano, Gerard Pique, Dani Alves; Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas; Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Neymar

football formations

Key Matchups

Sergio Busquets vs. Angel Di Maria - While Real Madrid have been the stronger of the two teams in all competitions this season, Madrid are still more the more direct of the two sides, while Barcelona are still excellent at keeping the ball. It's not tough to envision a match in which Barcelona have nearly two-thirds possession, but get dominated. So naturally, Barcelona's most defensive midfielder and Madrid's most advanced midfielder are going to see a lot of each other.

Di Maria and Busquets could be the key men whenever Madrid transition from defense into attack, with Di Maria probably pressing higher up the pitch than Luka Modric, and subsequently becoming the catalyst to start a number of their counter attacks. Di Maria has to get Madrid running at goal and Busquets has to stop him.

Neymar vs. Marcelo - Marcelo isn't the best defensive left back in the world, but Madridistas will be hoping he's picked up a handful of Neymar's tricks in national team camps. If Barcelona's last two Champions League games are any indication, Tata has come to favor a lineup that features both Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta, which pushes Neymar to the right flank. Assuming he starts -- and it's certainly possible he could be benched for Pedro or Alexis Sanchez -- he'll terrorize Marcelo with his runs into the box.

Prediction

These teams appeared to be heading in different directions for a while, but Barcelona's recent Champions League win over Manchester City and 7-0 thrashing of Osasuna in the league has some believing that the old Barcelona could be back. Still, it's very difficult to bet against Madrid with the form that Ronaldo, Bale and Modrić are in at the moment, and it's obvious that Carlo Ancelotti has learned from his decision to play Bale as a center forward in the first Clasico.

It should be another excellent, close game, but Madrid are at home and are in the better form right now. 2-1 Madrid.

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