Clasico chance to edge to title

Real Madrid's BBC forward line of Gareth Bale (right), Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo will be eager for revenge when they face Barcelona at the Nou Camp, having been on the wrong end of a 4-0 trouncing earlier this term.
Real Madrid's BBC forward line of Gareth Bale (right), Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo will be eager for revenge when they face Barcelona at the Nou Camp, having been on the wrong end of a 4-0 trouncing earlier this term. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Barcelona looking to consolidate La Liga lead while getting one over archrivals Real Madrid

BARCELONA • Barcelona will honour legendary former player and manager Johan Cruyff as they look to inflict more misery upon eternal rivals Real Madrid in the Clasico tonight.

The most-watched tie in world football is Barca's first since the Dutchman died at the age of 68 after a short battle with cancer last week. A pre-match display involving over 90,000 fans will read "Gracies Johan" (thanks Johan, in Catalan) with the same message carried on the Barca players' shirts.

"In what is a special match, it is without doubt extra motivation for us to try and win the game," said captain Andres Iniesta.

Indeed, the emotion surrounding the occasion supersedes its importance in the title race in La Liga, with Barcelona 10 points clear of third-placed Real with just eight games left. A 4-0 thrashing of Real when the sides last met in November put Barca well on course to retain the title while forcing their archrivals to rebuild.

Real have since replaced Rafael Benitez with Zinedine Zidane and the Frenchman enters his first Clasico as manager, knowing that his side's performance could well enhance or tarnish his reputation.

Zidane has won 11 of 14 games since taking charge with his sole defeat coming against city rivals Atletico Madrid.

He also faces the challenge of finding balance in a side that has often been accused of relying on individuals rather than a collective effort.

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    Gareth Bale skipped international duty against Ukraine and is well rested and raring to go. But it will be worth noting that Real Madrid have not won against Barca when the BBC trio (Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo) have been in the line-up together.

    They have started three times and lost on all of those occasions against Barca. On top of that, Ronaldo has yet to score against a top-four side in La Liga this season after 30 games.

    WILL ZIDANE DEFY HISTORY?

    Ever since the 2008-09 season, every Real Madrid manager had fared poorly in his Nou Camp debut. Juande Ramos, Manuel Pellegrini, Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti's first visits to the Catalan stadium all ended in defeat, with just one goal scored (Ancelotti's side) against Barcelona's 10.

    The signs do not bode well for Zidane who, as a player, won only four out of 10 Clasicos.

    CAN BARCA STAY UNBEATEN?

    Luis Enrique's side have not lost in 22 straight league games at the Nou Camp, winning 20 and drawing only two. They have also scored at least a goal in each of those games.

    The last time Barcelona lost a league game at home to Real Madrid was in April 2012.

    AN EMOTIONAL CLASICO

    As the first Clasico after Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff's death, fans from both sides will join in a tribute by forming a 90,000-card mosaic with the words "Gracies Johan", which will also be on the Barcelona jerseys.

    Mascots of both Barcelona and Real Madrid will wear shirts with the same tribute, including the Cruyff and FC Barcelona Foundations across the back of their shirts.

    A minute of silence will be held before kick-off and a video tribute will be played.

Such is the pressure that Zidane is under that Spanish newspaper Marca has reported that the former Real midfielder will gamble on a new starting XI despite having a full squad to choose from.

Marca outlined a 4-3-3 formation with no place for James Rodriguez, Isco or Raphael Varane, with Keylor Navas; Danilo, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo; Casemiro, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos; Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and Gareth Bale starting.

A positive result could go some way in convincing club president Florentino Perez that Zidane is the man for the job in the long run, amid speculation that Perez wants Jose Mourinho back at the club.

Barcelona manager Luis Enrique should also be able to name his

strongest starting line-up, with the Catalans missing only Jeremy Mathieu and Sandro Ramirez.

Despite a Champions League quarter-final first leg against Atletico on Tuesday, there is little to suggest that Enrique will rest his stars.

NO NEED FOR ROTATION

A team like ours is capable of playing many games in succession. We've got the best players in the world and that won't affect us. We'll fight to the death from kick-off to win.

ALEIX VIDAL, Barcelona full-back, on his team's ability to cope with their playing schedule.

"A team like ours is capable of playing many games in succession," full-back Aleix Vidal told a press conference, as Barca seek to extend their 39-game unbeaten run. "We've got the best players in the world and that won't affect us. We'll fight to the death from kick-off to win."

Five-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi will have the added incentive of registering his 500th career goal today.

"It would be nice to score my 500th goal against Real Madrid in the Clasico," said the Argentinian, who is one away from the milestone.

"But it would be even nicer to win the game."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2016, with the headline 'CLASICO CHANCE TO EDGE TO TITLE'. Print Edition | Subscribe