MADRID-based journalist Brendan Boyle (@BrendyBoyle) sets the scene ahead of Sunday night's Clásico as Barcelona travel to Real Madrid.
Real Madrid v Barcelona | Sunday 1st March 2019, 20:00 | La Liga TV
The Clásico is a game which has been in considerable decline in quality and prestige since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo – perhaps even before that – and, given the low morale and the glaring limitations of both squads, exacerbated further by injuries to Luis Suárez, Ousmane Dembélé and Eden Hazard, this Sunday's clash feels more like El Flácido than El Clásico.
In the wake of Real Madrid’s collapse at home to Manchester City Jorge Valdano described the upcoming clash between Spain’s two biggest sporting institutions as ‘a race between two cripples.’ The same night El Larguero director Manu Carreño quipped that the team ‘who is least bad will win La Liga this season.’
Yes, things are that bad.
What’s the matter with Madrid?
The first Clásico of the season in December proved to be an entirely forgettable occasion and in the weeks that followed it felt like both teams were heading in very different directions.
Madrid won the Supercopa in Saudi Arabia while Barca plummeted into an institutional crisis, which included the sacking of Ernesto Valverde; the farcical search of a replacement; the appointment of Quique Setién; the public fallout between sporting director Eric Abidal and the squad (Messi); the selling of young talent in January; the long-term injuries to Suárez and Dembélé; the hiring of a PR agency to bad mouth current squad members; and, lastly, the controversial signing of Leganés striker Martin Braithwaite.
As Barcelona self-combusted, Zinedine Zidane’s men had a chance to go for the jugular and really take control of the league. They hadn’t been playing particularly well but their defensive solidity and individual talent continued to get them over the line but such an approach is unsustainable when the fixtures come thick and fast and you lack a killer in attack.
In their last five games they’ve been knocked out of the Copa del Rey at home; dropped points at home to Celta; lost away to Levante; and capitulated against Pep Guardiola’s Man City. As we recently highlighted, It’s a team with a lot of problems and, until the summer, I don’t see a quick solution.
The defeat midweek exposed the faults that have been lying just under the surface in attack and for the vast majority of the game Los Blancos did very little of note. Florentino Perez signed cheques for a combined north of €80m for Mariano and Luka Jovic in the last 18 months but Zidane seems to want nothing to do with either.
Eden Hazard’s first season ended before it really begun and it feels like Madrid fans have already moved on to thinking about their next Galactico.
Are Barca that bad?
While Madrid lack attacking threat, Barca lack players full stop. Marca reported on Thursday that if Setién’s men were to play the Champions League second leg this week, they would do so with 12 senior players, two of which being goalkeepers.
Exceptionally poor planning by both clubs has left Zidane relying on Karim Benzema and Setien on Messi with a support cast he believes isn’t good enough to win the Champions League. ‘We don’t have a deep squad because, unfortunately, that’s how it was planned,’ said Sergio Busquets after the midweek draw in Naples.
Barca have won only two of their last seven away outings: an unconvincing 2-1 at Ibiza in the Copa Del Rey and a 3-2 win at Real Betis, thanks to circus defending from the men in green and white.
However, they will be buoyed by their recent form in the Spanish capital: the Catalans have won five of their last six visits to the Bernabeu and manager Setien is unbeaten in his previous visits to the Casa Blanca, earning a draw with Las Palmas and consecutive wins with Real Betis.
Physically Madrid arrive in much better condition, Barca’s threadbare squad is putting pressure on the legs of Messi and co. Mentally, however, recent results which have allowed Barca to return to the top of La Liga, a Copa Del Rey exit, combined with a now likely Champions League exit, Madrid look fragile once again after months of looking strong.
Barcelona earned an important draw in Naples midweek but failed to impress; it will take time for Setien’s methods to really take form but it’s hard to imagine this Barca team getting much more from the resources at hand.
There’s a general cloud of doubt hanging over both sides and the volatile build-up makes this a very strange game to analyse. December saw the first 0-0 Clásico draw in La Liga since 2002 and it’s hard to see a drastic change this time around.
Madrid have failed to score in their last three meetings and have zero wins in their last seven Clásicos in all competitions, a run where they have registered a total of four goals.
Given the run-in to the final Clásico of the season, it seems reasonable that both managers would be relatively happy with the draw, a result that would give them room and time to regroup and go back to the drawing board ahead of the title run-in.
A Madrid defeat and the league would look as unlikely as their progress in the Champions League and it will be interesting to see how Zidane’s men handle that pressure.
He scored some big goals at the Santiago Bernabéu – three in his last five – during his time at Atletico Madrid, and Antoine Griezmann’s season has gone under the radar a bit given all that’s gone on. He has 14 goals in all competitions so far this season and he could be value at 15/2 (Betway) to register the first goal.
World football’s biggest game has lost its allure and mystique for the time being and, come Sunday night, it seems most likely that the team who is least bad will take the three points. Right now, they’re equally as bad but one team has the best player in the world and, more often than not, that tends to make the difference.
Who knows, it might turn out to be a classic Clásico – sometimes even fights between two bad boxers turn out to be thrillers.
Real Madrid v Barcelona – Draw (14/5 Sportingbet)
Real Madrid v Barcelona – Antoine Griezmann to score first (15/2 Betway)