In a week in which terror attacks have cast a long shadow over European football in the bombings in France and the cancellation of scheduled friendlies between Belgium and Spain, and Holland and Germany, this season’s first El Clasico is still set to be played on Saturday.
With the entire continent still grieving and on its guard, the show will go on: Real Madrid will line up against Barcelona, and the people will attempt to take back a little normalcy from the terrorists who have tried to wrest it from them.
Security levels at the Santiago Bernabeu will be heightened, with a major increase expected in the number of police deployed around the stadium, as well as more stringent security checks for fans entering it.
And what of the two teams set to take the field amidst all of this?
Of the two, Barcelona seems to be in the better nick at the moment: The reigning champions are top of the league and undefeated since losing to Sevilla at the beginning of October. Not bad, considering they’ve been without their main talisman since Lionel Messi injured his knee in late-September.
That Barça has been able to carry on without nearly a blip is largely down to the form of Neymar. The Brazilian has been the main man in Messi’s absence, scoring 10 goals and making six assists since Messi was injured.
The 23-year-old’s performances have been so good of late that Brazil coach, Dunga recently implied that Neymar is the best in the world at the moment. It’s difficult to argue against him.
If Neymar’s form wasn’t enough of a problem for Real Madrid, there’s the news that Messi’s recovery is ahead of schedule. The four-time Ballon d’Or winner trained with the team this week and may be fit enough to start Saturday. Ivan Rakitic, who has been out since earlier this month after injuring his calf in a Champions League clash with BATE Borisov, is also on the mend and could make the bench.
Real Madrid is the home team and on the surface, one would think that would make them the favorite. But the 10-time European champions are experiencing a contrasting set of fates to their Catalan rivals at the moment.
Star forward Karim Benzema is under the cloud of a sex scandal involving blackmail that could see him lose his place on the team and possibly even serve jail time. Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t playing particularly well, and rumors about him leaving the club refuse to die down.
Reports indicate Ronaldo doesn’t see eye-to-eye with manager Rafa Benitez and one newspaper quoted him as telling club president Florentino Perez “We will win nothing with this manager.”
Gareth Bale is having a somewhat indifferent season thus far and rumors are beginning to emerge about him possibly being sold as well.
Meanwhile, there are injuries. Goalkeeper Keylor Navas, one of Madrid’s standout performers this season, is in doubt for the match, while Isco and Marcelo are still working their way back – it’s not yet clear if either will be available to start.
On the plus side for Real, Sergio Ramos is expected to make his return from injury, although he’ll require painkilling injections in order to do so. Calling it a crisis at this point would be somewhat hyperbolic, but on the evidence of Real’s last La Liga outing -– a 3-2 loss to Sevilla -– it’s safe to say that all is not entirely well in the White House.
A loss to Barcelona would extend the gap between the teams to four points. Not insurmountable, but it would certainly add to the momentum Barça already has. A second La Liga loss in a row for Real, meanwhile, could also see Benitez’s team drop as low as fourth place.
Real Madrid, and Ronaldo in particular, need to shake off their melancholy. With Spain’s friendly against Belgium called off this week, players on both sides will be rested and ready. If Real Madrid are to right the ship, they’ll need to find more belief than they displayed against Sevilla two weeks ago.
Otherwise, they risk allowing Barcelona to run away with the league.