Europe’s most illustrious domestic league celebrates its showpiece match tomorrow evening, and if the raw math at the top of La Liga suggest this ‘clasico’ must be both tightly contested and potentially decisive in the outcome of the Spanish championship, there are plenty of people who follow Barcelona and Real Madrid who doubt both those forecasts. One point separates the clubs after 27 matchdays, yet Luis Enrique found himself answering a question at his press briefing on Saturday about the likelihood of a 5-0 home win at Campo Nou.
Five-nil? He reacted like a firefighter who had just seen smoke pluming from beneath a nearby doorway. "I’ve heard no talk of anything like that in the dressing-room," he responded. "The players aren’t stupid." He reminded his audience that Madrid are the reigning European club champions. He had no need to remind himself of that since the last meeting between the clubs, in October, ended in a 3-1 win for Madrid, after which they soon leapfrogged Barcelona in the table on the way to a run of 22 successive wins across all competitions.
Barcelona only regained the top spot two weeks ago. But the clear slowing of Madrid’s momentum since the new year is what excites barcelonistas, and informs the euphoric mood in Catalonia. And the last two days have brought better news to Barcelona than to the Spanish capital. Friday’s draw for the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League — a competition in which three Spanish clubs remain in the last eight — dealt a tougher hand to Real, who must play Atletico Madrid, than to Barcelona, who will meet Paris Saint-Germain.
That combination also spared the calendar a Real-Barca last-eight clash in the European tournament and a succession of ‘clasicos’ over the next four weeks. That can be dangerous: Whenever Madrid and Barcelona spend too much concentrated time playing each other, there is usually a very toxic discharge.
The potential for edgy confrontation tomorrow is, as ever, high. Eve more so with Luis Enrique’s announcement that combative midfielder Sergio Busquets, who has been recovering from injury, "will be ready, although he is not quite 100 per cent." Busquets gives Barcelona their iron.
Madridistas, for their part, are relieved that coach Carlo Ancelotti’s first-choice paring at the center of defense, Sergio Ramos and Pepe, are both fit. Their availability may boosts the aggression level, but it makes a demonstrable difference to Madrid’s security. Both have been out with fitness problems for large stretches of 2015, the period when Madrid have lost some of their authority on the pitch. "To have Ramos for this game is a huge help to us," said Ancelotti. "This is game that will be won in the mind as much as with the body."
Ancelotti spoke of Luke Modric, who returned to the midfield this month after a long lay-off, in the same terms, and then he addressed the pressing, consuming question of Cristiano Ronaldo’s well-being. The figures tell part of the story. Ronaldo scored a mammoth 28 goals in his first 18 Liga matches this season; in his last seven, just two. The gestures on the field, theatrical displays of exasperation and sometimes anger, tell their own story. So does his announcement he will make no public, verbal statements to the media for what remains of the season.
In the absence of Ronaldo’s comments, the coach is obliged to speak instead. "He has had a good week," said Ancelotti of Ronaldo. "He has trained well, and he’s right at his peak for this match. Tomorrow, there will be no shortage of attitude or focus."
Ancelotti made the point that even a Ronaldo in less-than-vintage form can be decisive. His two goals in Madrid’s chaotic 4-3 home defeat against Schalke 04 in the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie had been the difference between elimination and progress, 5-3 on aggregate. "He saved us in that game. He may not have been at his absolute best, but he has always given us something good. And I’m not going to demand of him more than do from the others."
But as even the most casual watcher of clasicos knows, Ronaldo demands of himself more than he expects of others. And he seeks more than parity with Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, whose season has followed a trajectory the mirror opposite of Ronaldo’s. Messi had a subdued autumn by his elevated standards; since the new year, and being dropped from the team by Luis Enrique for the first fixture after the winter break, Messi has dominated the Liga landscape. He has 17 goals from his last 10 league outings.
Messi had a superb personal performance from four days ago, against Manchester City in the Champions League, in his immediate slipstream. "He’s playing with great quality, as are the whole Barca team," admitted Ancelotti. "But we have the quality to win this game."
Would he settle for a draw, and the one point gap with ten fixtures left? "I have never been satisfied with a draw," said the Madrid coach, who has long maintained the championship will be settled only on the last day of the season. "The outcome of this clasico will not decide the title," said Luis Enrique.