It's been over seven months since the last time Real Madrid and Barcelona met on the field. Considering the rather frequent nature of El Clásico matches over the past few seasons, that's a really long time. While many love these games and eagerly await each edition, scores more have probably suffered some level of "Clásico fatigue" and needed the break. Hopefully seven months is enough.
Whenever these two Spanish rivals meet, it's always important and it's always interesting. But thanks to recent results and some changes over the offseason, this latest edition of the Clásico gives us some fresh storylines. And even more importantly than that, for the first time since 2000-04, we've also got a genuine title race that doesn't just involve the two participants in this match.
Entering Saturday's match at the Camp Nou, Barcelona sit at the top of the Primera Division table with a one point lead over Atlético Madrid and three point advantage over Real Madrid. Thanks to Barca's scoreless draw at Osasuna last Saturday, the Blaugrana's somewhat comfortable lead over Los Blancos has shrunk, giving Carlo Ancelotti's side an opportunity to pull even with their rivals if they can take all three points this weekend.
For Barcelona to come out on top they need to take back home field advantage and make the Camp Nou a more difficult place for Real Madrid to play. Barca have only defeated Madrid once at home in league play since 2010 -- that was Jose Mourinho's first Clásico that saw his Madrid side get embarrassed 5-0 -- which is a bit surprising. They've won twice in cup matches over Madrid at home since that match, but success, at least in terms of wins in league matches, has been elusive.
More importantly, the Blaugrana need to play better. Head coach Gerardo Martino will be entering the Clásico frying pan for the first time since taking over Barcelona this summer. His version of Barcelona has shown many of the same troubling similarities that plagued Jordi Roura's version last season. The Blaugrana remain vulnerable defensively, a fact that was exposed by AC Milan in the Champions League on Tuesday. Perhaps that was down to some rust -- Gerard Piqué wasted rested against Osasuna and Javier Maschrano is just returning from injury -- but there's been plenty of moments this season where the defense has bordered on cringeworthy.
Up until now, there's not been a team with the necessary firepower to really test that defense. Real Madrid have more than enough firepower to act as an accurate measuring stick.
Ancelotti's first season in charge of Madrid hasn't started quite as well as many hoped. Real Madrid haven't been bad but it took them a few weeks to being to settle in to the new system and a rash of injuries hasn't helped either. Xabi Alonso still hasn't stepped on the field this season and Gareth Bale is just starting to work his way into form after his prolonged transfer drama derailed his preseason preparations.
Over the past couple games we've seen steady improvement from Real Madrid and an increasing confidence on the field. Since their El Derbi Madrileño loss in late September, Madrid are unbeaten in four matches (across all competitions) and while it hasn't always been smooth sailing, there's been consistent improvement. Karim Benzema is still struggling horribly as the lone striker at the top of Ancelotti's attack but Cristiano Ronaldo has been his usual magical self, scoring six goals in the last four games.
These two teams are still not playing at their best, and this crucial early season matchup could potentially set the tone for the title race in the weeks and months to come.
Finally, the first Clásico of the new season is also about new faces. Neymar makes his debut in one of soccer's greatest rivalries and will be out to impress all observers. It helps that he's surrounded by a roster of players who have been through these battles time after time.
Madird features many new faces who will be making their Clásico debuts. Gareth Bale of course is expected to play, but the likes of Isco, Daniel Carvajal, Isco and Asier Illarramendi either will, or could, enter this unique footballing pressure cooker on Saturday.
Will one or more of these debutantes crack under the pressure and directly affect the outcome of the match? Can Neymar or Bale make an impact and live up to their hefty summer price tags? Or will an old familiar face make a key play that gives Barcelona control of the title race or creates a three way log jam at the top?
The game takes place at 12 p.m. ET, 5 p.m. local time on Saturday. You can catch it on beIN Sport and beIN Sport en Español in the United States.
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