Alex Kirkland and Sam Marsden7 minute read
We are just over 24 hours away from a Classic this should have far-reaching implications for the LaLiga title race this season. Barcelona lead Real Madrid by nine points in the table and have won the last two meetings between the sides, and a third straight win would almost wrap up the Catalan club’s league title.
After an impressive Champions League victory over Liverpool in the round of 16, there is every reason to think that Madrid are starting to come into their own at the inflection point of the campaign. They are Spain’s reigning domestic champions and won the clubs’ October encounter in convincing fashion.
What should you expect when the two famous rivals line up on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+)? ESPN’s Barcelona and Madrid correspondents Sam Marsden and Alex Kirkland outline the biggest pre-game storylines and make their predictions.
How relevant is the latest Clasico and how can Madrid change the result?
Barcelona’s 1-0 victory at the Santiago Bernabeu in the Copa del Rey semi-final first leg on March 2 was not a complete fluke – although their goal, Franck Kessie’s shot hitting the net via the Thibaut Courtois’ save and Eder Militao’s involuntary deflection, certainly was — but it was unusual. Madrid ‘dominated’ the game, in Courtois’ words. Barcelona had a historically low possession of 35.4%, forced to sit down and defend deep. Madrid managed 13 shots against Barca’s four. The difference in xG, or expected goals, was minimal: 0.57 for Madrid and 0.63 for Barca. Madrid’s problem was last ball and creating high quality chances. None of their shots were on target.
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– Barca vs Madrid: Sunday at 3 p.m. ET, live stream on ESPN+
For coach Carlo Ancelotti, the idea of LaLiga Clasico on Sunday – and the Copa return leg on April 5 – is simple: play the same way, while being more clinical in the final third.
“We just have to repeat this game at Barcelona,” he said after the Copa match. “Defensively, with high pressure, it was one of Madrid’s best games. If we can play with that intensity, we’ll have more chances.”
Expect Madrid to stick to that high pressure, with the midfielder – be it Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Federico Valverde or Eduardo Camavinga – pushing to disrupt Barca’s passage. It will be up to Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior to be more incisive in attack. Benzema had just one shot in that last encounter and Vinicius was limited to two, unable to tear himself away from Ronald Araujo’s attentions.
Of course, Barcelona will be looking to improve that Copa display as well. It’s hard to imagine Xavi’s side having so little ball at Camp Nou. –Kirkland
Are the two goalkeepers the most important players here? If so, what does that say about the state of Clasico?
The Clasicos of the past 15 years have largely been defined by goalscorers and flair players. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Modric and Andres Iniesta. However, ask the supporters of either club who their most important players are right now and Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Courtois would likely rank near the top. This suggests that the quality of this device may have gone down in recent years, but shouldn’t take anything away from the two keepers.
German stopper Ter Stegen is having arguably his best season since joining Barca nine years ago. In 25 La Liga games, he conceded just eight goals, keeping 19 clean sheets, both league highs for this stage of the campaign. These eight goals conceded come from an xGA (expected goals against) of 20.56. He made 51 saves, some of them spectacular, including heroic performances in several 1-0 wins. Keeping goals is only part of his job, the mind. He is also the front line of Barca’s attack and has completed 82.5% of his 699 La Liga pass attempts. No goalie in the league has attempted more or has a higher success rate.
On paper, Courtois’ stats don’t compare this season but his value for Madrid is similar. In the big moments, he is there. Ask Liverpool. He held them off again on Wednesday as Madrid progressed in Europe, and he was player of the match in last season’s Champions League final between the same two teams. Recent highlights include a fine save against Real Valladolid at 0-0 as Madrid claimed three points and a massive save from Borja Iglesias in the recent goalless draw against Real Betis. –Marsden
Why do Madrid beat all comers in the Champions League but often struggle against Barca?
While Madrid have beaten some of Europe’s best over the past year – dispatching Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, Manchester City heroically on their way to Champions League victory – Barcelona have proved a more difficult test. Before Barca’s 1-0 back-to-the-wall Copa win came their convincing 3-1 win in the Spanish Supercopa final on January 15. Yes, Madrid emerged victorious in La Liga, with a comfortable 3-1 victory on October 16, but before that Barca produced one of the most convincing performances by an away team at the Bernabeu last season. , beating Madrid 4-0 on March 20.
Look back a bit further and Madrid’s record is considerably better, however. They have gone six Clasicos unbeaten until this 4-0 thrashing, including four straight La Liga wins in 2020 and 2021, for the first time since the 1960s. Xavi’s arrival at Camp Nou and the subsequent improvement of the Barca – at least domestically – made the game unpredictable once again. The comparison with last season’s Champions League victory is also somewhat misleading. These epic comebacks were only necessary due to the severity of Madrid’s defeat in their 1-0 loss to PSG, and for the most part the 3-2 home and 4-3 away losses. against Chelsea and Manchester City.
In summary: this Real Madrid team is capable of greatness, and of being very average, and we have seen a lot of that in the Clasicos, and in Europe, in recent seasons. –Kirkland
How does the Negreira affair hang over this match and does it affect the relationship between these two clubs?
Barcelona’s payments to the former vice-chairman of the arbitration committee in Spain are testing the bond developed between the two Clasico rivals in recent seasons. They are partners in the European Super League project and were among the only teams to reject LaLiga’s deal with private equity firm CVC for an instant boost in return for a future percentage of their television money. Presidents Joan Laporta and Florentino Perez are both able to see that while they still want to win, both teams benefit if the other stays strong.
Madrid were the only LaLiga side not to condemn the revelation of Barca’s payments to former referee Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira in a letter released by the Spanish clubs two weeks ago. Last weekend, however, following a decision by prosecutors to file a corruption complaint against Barca, Madrid decided to join the complaint. Reports suggest Barca expected this to happen due to mounting fan pressure on Perez to act, but they are also disappointed with TV3 suggesting Laporta will even cancel the traditional directors’ lunch Sunday’s pre-game accordingly.
Barca continue to declare their innocence against the allegations, with Laporta claiming he never ‘bought referees or influence’. For many, however, their image is already stained although there is no judgment yet. And what happens on the ground is even seen through the prism of the case. Meanwhile, fans of opposing teams are throwing fake banknotes during Barca games and chanting for them to be relegated.
“It was sad to see,” Xavi said following such incidents in the win over Athletic Club last weekend. “Barca are judged before their time, which is not good for society.” –Marsden
Real Madrid player to watch
Vinicius. His losing battle with Araujo was the story of the last Clasico. But Vinicius is in fine form, scoring and starring in Madrid’s La Liga win over Espanyol last weekend, and will be determined to win this time around. –Kirkland
Barcelona player to watch
Raphinha. Still settling in after a summer switch from Leeds United, he’s been Barca’s standout striker in 2023 since Ousmane Dembele’s injury. He scored the winner in 1-0 wins in each of Barca’s last two La Liga fixtures. In total, he now has five goals in his last 10 games and eight in 20 after scoring just once in his first 17 appearances. –Marsden
Predicts Real Madrid starting XI
Courteous; Dani Carvajal, Militao, Nacho, Ferland Mendy; Eduardo Camavinga, Kroos, Modric, Valverde; Vinicius, Benzema. –Kirkland
Predicts Barcelona starting XI
Ter Stegen; Araujo, Jules Koundé, Andreas Christensen, Alejandro Balde; Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong, Kessie, Gavi; Raphinha, Robert Lewandowski. –Marsden
Barcelona 1-2 Real Madrid: A win in Madrid might not put them back in the title hunt, but a six-point gap would ensure Barca leaders couldn’t take it easy by the end of the season. –Kirkland
Barcelona 1-1 Real Madrid: A draw is enough for Barca to maintain their nine-point lead at the top, while Madrid could settle for one point and reserve their efforts for the upcoming Copa del Rey and Champions League challenges. –Marsden