If there is a moment of reckoning in the La Liga title race, it could very well come on Saturday, when Real Madrid and Barcelona square off in the first El Clasico of the season. Calling a match that takes place in late December a title-decider might seem hyperbolic, although we’ve already seen it happen in the Premier League with Manchester City’s win over Manchester United earlier this month. Saturday’s clash at the Santiago Bernabeu may not necessarily determine who wins the La Liga title this season. But it may very well determine who doesn’t.
Hosts Real Madrid are the current Spanish, European and, following last week’s triumph in the World Club Cup, World champions. They are also 11 points behind league leaders Barcelona. Real admittedly have a game in hand over Barça, but a win for the Blaugrana on Saturday would extend their lead to 14 points, effectively leaving Real Madrid in their dust.
A win for the hosts on the other hand, could cut Barça’s lead to just eight points, which could easily be slashed to five, provided Real can win their game in hand. It could also provide the spark needed to incite Zinedine Zidane’s men to fight their way back into a title race in which they currently sit fourth, behind Barça, Atletico Madrid and Valencia.
Over the past couple seasons, we’ve seen Real Madrid wrest back the mantle for best team in Europe from their rivals. Having just won his fifth Ballon d’Or, Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo has arguably reclaimed the crown as best player in Europe. Fresh from winning another trophy, on their home patch in front of an emphatic home crowd, it would be easy to pick them as favorites. But in this instance, they’re not.
For starters, Ronaldo is injured. He suffered a knock in the World Club Cup final and has missed two days of training in the week leading up to the game. Madrid have had an up and down season, losing games to lowly Girona and Real Betis, and finishing second behind Tottenham in their Champions League group.
Then there’s the matter of their opposition in Saturday’s game.
Although Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde had never really been the kind of “sexy” managerial appointment that gets the club’s fans excited, the former Athletic Bilbao boss has been getting results that are undeniable. Barça may not be playing the kind of enthralling, one-touch, tiki-taka football the club found success with under Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique, but they are winning.
Barcelona remain unbeaten this season, lead the league in scoring with 42 goals, and have conceded the fewest, with just seven given up in 16 matches. They’ve transitioned almost seamlessly into a post-MSN era following Neymar’s move to Paris Saint-Germain, and even coped with his replacement, Ousmane Demebele being sidelined by injury after just two appearances for the club. They’ve also managed to ride a dip in form from star striker Luis Suarez, while internalizing a new style of playing.
Of course coping with bumps in the road is a lot easier when you’ve got Lionel Messi in your team. The Argentine maestro leads the team in both goals and assists. He may have failed to get onto the scoresheet in Barça’s 4-0 win over Deportivo La Coruna (he hit the woodwork three times and had a penalty saved), but he set up Suarez’s opener and has remained the centerpiece of Barcelona’s attack this season. He also has something of an edge over his Real Madrid rival, Ronaldo, when it comes to meetings between these two.
In 36 Clasicos, Messi has 16 wins, eight draws and 12 losses. Ronaldo meanwhile, has eight wins, seven draws and 13 losses in his 28 Clasicos. Messi also has 24 goals to Ronaldo’s 17, and 13 assists to Ronaldo’s one. Even Messi’s goals-per-minute ratio is better, with the Argentine having score every 86:19 minutes in the Clasico to Ronaldo’s 133:30.
The last time the two teams met at the Bernabeu, Messi had his say, notching a late winner in a 3-2 triumph for the visitors. It was also his 500th goal for Barcelona. Ultimately, that goal didn’t really matter, as Real Madrid went on to win La Liga last season. This time however, if Messi scores the winner it will matter. It may not seal the league for Barça, Atletico and Valencia remain within striking distance. But it will certainly put an end to Real Madrid’s title defense.
Watch the El Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona, this Saturday, December 23 at 7:00am ET on BeINSports.