Football: Barca need 'El Clasico' win more

Neymar (left) and Andres Iniesta training prior to today's "El Clasico" against Real at the Nou Camp. Six points behind the league leaders, the hosts cannot afford to fall further behind.
Neymar (left) and Andres Iniesta training prior to today's "El Clasico" against Real at the Nou Camp. Six points behind the league leaders, the hosts cannot afford to fall further behind.PHOTO: REUTERS

Coach brushes off criticism but knows they must improve in wake of lousy patch

BARCELONA • Barcelona are the more desperate side as Real Madrid visit Catalonia today for the first El Clasico of the season boasting a six-point lead at the top of La Liga.

Real have won 15 more points in all in La Liga under the guidance of Zinedine Zidane since the sides last met in April and are riding a 31-game unbeaten run in all competitions.

In contrast, Barca are struggling, by their standards, after 13 games into the La Liga season.

However, coach Luis Enrique believes much of the media criticism of his side has been overblown, citing the institutional crisis that Barca overcame in January in his debut season last year to win the treble.

"We remain favourites for all the titles, but it is evident we have to improve," said Enrique.

"We lack consistency, but don't exaggerate. In my first season you (the media) exaggerated and we ended up winning the treble."

The biggest match in club football is expected to capture an audience of 650 million people worldwide, according to figures released by La Liga.

"I am not going to say it is just another game, it is a very important match, it has a special meaning... a special taste," Real president Florentino Perez told AFP.

"No one hides that is has a worldwide impact, it is seen by millions of people across the world, like the World Cup final."

Yet, the composed Zidane refused to accept that a first Liga title in five years would be Real's to lose should they bag victory at the Nou Camp.

"I am not thinking about the consequences," he said.

"We are thinking about preparing well for the game, and, whatever happens, it will not be decisive."

Both sides are blighted by injury concerns.

Real will be without Gareth Bale, with the Welshman now set to miss up to four months after an ankle operation, while Toni Kroos is also sidelined by a broken foot.

It was initially hoped that Bale could be back in action within two to three months after suffering the injury to the peroneal tendons in his ankle during Real's 2-1 Champions League win at Sporting Lisbon last week.

However, Madrid sports daily AS reported that the Welshman, after undergoing surgery in London on Tuesday, is unlikely to return before April.

Cristiano Ronaldo looks set to be partnered by Karim Benzema and Lucas Vazquez in Bale's absence.

Barca are sweating on the fitness of Jordi Alba and Gerard Pique, who both struggled through the 1-1 draw at Real Sociedad last Sunday.

However, the champions will be hugely boosted by the return of captain Andres Iniesta, while the front three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar are all fit to start.

The clash between the top two offers Sevilla and Atletico Madrid the chance to make up ground in the title race.

Sevilla sit behind Barca only on goal difference in third and can close in on Real when they visit winless Granada today.

Atletico have bounced back from their Madrid derby humbling at the hands of Real two weeks ago with three wins and 11 goals without conceding since.

However, they will need to end a seven-game unbeaten streak in the league by Espanyol to keep that run going at the Vicente Calderon.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 03, 2016, with the headline 'Barca need 'El Clasico' win more'. Print Edition | Subscribe