La Liga champions Real Madrid host an unbeaten Barcelona side, at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday for the first El Clasico of the season.
The hosts are returning after a successful Club World Cup outing from Abu Dhabi, having picked up their third world title in the space of four years. Zidane’s men haven’t lost a game since that shock 3-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur back in November.
Barcelona, on the other hand, are yet to be defeated this season. The last time they were on the wrong end of a result in any competition was the Super Copa, when they lost both legs to Real Madrid with an aggregate score of 5-1. Since then, they have gone on a 24-match unbeaten run in all competitions.
As things stand, Barcelona are top of the table with 42 points to their name. Valencia are closest to them in second place, with 36 points. Los Blancos, on the other hand, are fourth on the table and have only 31 points to their name so far, although they do have a game in hand.
Team News & Tactics
Barring the absence of his son Luca, Zinedine Zidane has a fully fit squad to choose from. Both Sergio Ramos and Casemiro return after suspension and will be available for selection.
Cristiano Ronaldo is also likely to feature after initial reports of injury, something which will undoubtedly come as a huge boost to the fans and Zidane himself. We will likely see the exact same side that started against Gremio in the final of their Club World Cup on Wednesday.
Keylor Navas is expected to start in goal, with Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane and Dani Carvajal setting up shop in defence. Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Luka Modric will then make up the midfield trio, with Isco in a more central attacking role.
Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo should lead the line upfront. Zidane could also opt for a 4-4-2, which worked spectacularly against Sevilla in their last La Liga match. However, dropping Casemiro against Barcelona isn’t something that the Real Madrid boss may want to risk.
Gareth Bale and Marcos Asensio on the right and left wings respectively would make a formidable force, but it would mean having to sacrifice Isco. It will be interesting to see how the Frenchman chooses to set his side up.
Probable Starting Lineup (4-3-1-2): Navas; Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Marcelo; Modric, Casemiro, Kroos; Isco; Ronaldo, Benzema
Ernesto Valverde is expected to be without the services of Samuel Umtiti, Ousmane Dembele, Paco Alcacer and Gerard Deulofeu. Rafinha and Arda Turan may be fit and available for selection, but it is unlikely that the duo will start on Saturday afternoon.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen is expected to start in goal, with Jordi Alba, Gerard Pique and Thomas Vermaelen holding on to their places in defence. Javier Mascherano has returned to fitness, but Vermaelen’s form may have earned him a starting spot in a match of this magnitude.
Nelson Semedo is expected to come in and replace Sergi Roberto at right-back. Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic and Paulinho are all likely to hold on to their places in midfield, and they are expected to be joined by Sergio Busquets, who was on the bench vs Deportivo La Coruna as he was at risk of suspension.
Since Alcacer and Deulofeu are both expected to miss out, Valverde will likely put both Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez upfront. Rafinha, if deemed fit enough may feature, but a place in the starting XI seems improbable and an appearance off the bench is likelier.
Aleix Vidal has been used as a right winger on occasion this season and is a candidate to start. But for a match of this stature, it is highly unlikely that he will start alongside Suarez and Messi as part of an attacking trio.
Probable Starting Lineup (4-4-2): ter Stegen; Semedo, Pique, Vermaelen, Alba; Rakitic, Busquets, Paulinho, Iniesta; Suarez, Messi
- Real Madrid are undefeated in 30 of their last 32 La Liga games at the Bernabeu across all competitions.
- Barcelona have won 20 of their last 23 La Liga matches.
- Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 17 goals and assisted two, in 31 career games against Barcelona.
- Barcelona’s Lionel Messi has scored 24 goals and assisted 13, in 36 career matches against Real Madrid.
- In 87 La Liga games at the Bernabeu between these two sides, Real Madrid have won 52, Barcelona have won 20 and 15 matches were drawn.
Player To Watch
Besides Cristiano Ronaldo, who recently won yet another Ballon d’Or trophy and the Club World Cup, a lot of the attention will be on the Argentine, to see how he fares against the man who beat him to the illustrious for a second consecutive season.
Messi has been superb this season, directly involved in 25 goals (18 goals, 7 assists) in a mere 24 games across all competitions this term. After being being awarded his fourth European Golden Boot recently, his fans around the world will certainly hope that the superstar can prove that he can outshine Ronaldo at his home turf tomorrow.
Real Madrid 1-1 Barcelona
Barcelona have been in superb form this season and are yet to be defeated in the La Liga. Real Madrid, on the other hand, have dropped points on a number of occasions this season already, but have seemingly found their stride over the course of the past few weeks.
While Real Madrid should be able to boast of a full strength starting XI, Barcelona do have a few injuries to deal with in their squad. However, neither Ernesto Valverde nor their fans will consider that to be an excuse for not taking all three points, when Barcelona take on the recently crowned world champions at the Bernabeu.
We predict a hard fought and tense draw in the Spanish capital. Real Madrid are unlikely to put in the same kind of performance that they did in the Super Copa back in August and Barcelona will certainly be out to avenge the humiliation they suffered over the course of the two legs.