EUROPEAN football expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) analyses the biggest club match on the planet – El Clasico.
Barcelona v Real Madrid | Saturday 15:15
There’s an ill-educated view that La Liga is boring and uncompetitive.
Those who share such an inaccurate assumption probably need reminding that Spain’s top-flight has offered up three of the continent’s finest club sides in the modern game, all fighting it out in some of the most exhilarating title races in European football over recent seasons.
So it’s rather surprising to see Real Madrid stroll six points clear at the top of the standings as we enter December. Los Blancos arrive in Catalonia on Saturday afternoon knowing victory at the Camp Nou against their most bitter rivals could effectively end the title race before we see in the New Year. Remarkable.
The capital club are in the midst of their second-best unbeaten run in history (W25-D7-L0) and Zinedine Zidane's men have also lifted an 11th European crown during that 32-game sample. Madrid arrive having plundered 43 goals when claiming 10 wins from their last 11 outings.
But bar an outstanding 3-0 success away at Atletico Madrid last month, Los Merengues haven’t been entirely convincing. Sure, Real are unbeaten on the road since mid-December in La Liga and have scored more and conceded fewer than their hosts this season, but they’ve rarely hit top gear.
Last weekend’s 2-1 triumph against Sporting Gijon at the Bernebeau saw the lowly guests miss a penalty to level the scores and the absence of Gareth Bale, Toni Kroos and Alvaro Morata has, to an extent, forced Zidane’s hand in terms of selection and approach this weekend.
The suggestion is, the French boss will revert to the standard 4-3-3 formation here despite the obvious success when switching to 4-4-2 against Atletico. Casemiro’s return after 11 weeks out adds ballast and balance to the midfield trio alongside Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic with Isco dropping out.
Cristiano Ronaldo will resume his position on the left of the front-three with Karim Benzema down the middle and Lucas Vazquez replacing Bale on the right flank. Elsewhere, expect Dani Carvajal is to feature at right-back with Raphael Varane replacing Pepe in the heart of the defence.
It’s still a very capable XI, a very confident XI and an XI that Zidane feels is more than good enough to escape the Catalan capital with at least a point.
As for Barcelona, Luis Enrique must decide whether he brings Andres Iniesta back into the team after six weeks out injured. The Blaugrana have really struggled in his absence with opposing clubs having plenty of joy pressing Barca high up the pitch – Iniesta is pivotal in overcoming such a tactic.
Sergio Busquets has appeared languid all season and looks a shadow of the player that made that role his own in recent years whilst Ivan Rakitic seems to have gone off the boil too since Iniesta’s injury. Meanwhile, Andre Gomes has failed to spark since his big money move.
Barcelona struggling in attack Up top, Lionel Messi is carrying Barcelona. The hosts have scored more than once in just one of their last five Camp Nou outings with Neymar failing to notch in each of his last seven La Liga fixtures; Luis Suarez has managed only three goals in his past 10 matches.
Barca have claimed only two triumphs in five home fixtures, were held to a goalless draw here by nine-man Malaga in their last Camp Nou encounter and could only manage a 1-0 victory over bottom-of-the-table Granada on home soil not so long ago.
Luis Enrique’s troops have toiled defensively too. Neither Jordi Alba nor Gerard Pique looked 100% fit as the Blaugrana were totally outplayed in San Sebastian by Real Sociedad last weekend. And Sevilla and Valencia could also have easily taken points off Barca in recent weeks.
The betting angles
Despite offering up various deficiencies in the two dressing rooms, it’s a fair and well-worn cliché to say form goes out the window in such contests.
Barcelona were marvellous in the second-half at Sevilla and a repeat in performance could see the hosts land a crucial victory. But I’m not at all seduced by odds-on quotes for the Catalans to claim success on Saturday.
Madrid have W2-D1-L2 in trips to the Camp Nou since 2011/12 and will certainly fancy their chances of leaving with at least a point. Los Blancos have scored at least twice in eight of their last 10 visits and a repeat should see us land a 43/40 (Bet365) win with a +0.50 Asian Handicap start.
However, my banker bet arrives in the goals market. It’s already been backed in and is a smidgen on the skinny side now but Over 2.5 Goals and Both Teams To Score (8/13 Coral) can’t be ignored.
These two clubs have met 19 times since 2011/12 – 18 have featured winning Both Teams To Score bets, 18 have produced three goals or more and 17 have combined the two famous markets to provide profit.
What’s more, Madrid have managed a sole shutout in 29 games against Barcelona and that return includes a Clasico record as the Catalans have notched in each of their last 21 encounters with their old adversaries. Oh and Zidane’s visitors have claimed only four clean sheets in 2016/17.
With Luis Enrique’s side clearly struggling in their defensive third, it’s hard to ignore Real’s attacking claims here. Barca have conceded in 10 of their 18 competitive fixture this term and are coming up against a Los Blancos outfit that’s scored in every game this season.
This fixture often draws unnecessary column inches in the Messi v Ronaldo debate but at 7/2 (SkyBet) there’s decent value in supporting both superstars to score on Saturday.
Messi has banged in 19 goals from only 16 appearances this term, carrying the Blaugrana all too often. With neither Neymar nor Suarez firing, the diminutive Argentinean ace looks the most likely for the hosts.
Meanwhile, Ronaldo has netted 10 in his last seven for club and country, including two braces and two hat-tricks. The Portuguese hitman has scored eight of Real’s last 12 La Liga goals and found the back of the net in nine of his last 10 trips to the Camp Nou.
The Clasico has surprisingly lacked draws in recent seasons but with Madrid so comfortably clear at the top, there’s a suggestion Zidane could (and understandably so) be delighted to depart with a share of the spoils.
Barcelona know victory is paramount to open the title race up and although the defending champions have the quality to bag a morale-boosting result, it’s hard to find the confidence to support such a result.
With goals already being supported and Real Madrid’s robust efforts since their last loss in March at Wolfsburg respected, it might be worth having a wee nibble on the 11/1 (William Hill) for the encounter to end 2-2.
Barcelona v Real Madrid – Over 2.5 Goals and Both Teams To Score (8/13 Coral)
Barcelona v Real Madrid – Real Madrid +0.50 Asian Handicap (43/40 Bet365)
Barcelona v Real Madrid – Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to score (7/2 SkyBet)
Barcelona v Real Madrid – 2-2 correct score (11/1 William Hill)