MADRID (AP) Defending champion Barcelona travels to Spanish leader Real Madrid for the season’s second ”clasico” with its title ambitions on the line.
Barcelona beat Madrid 2-1 in their first meeting this season. But how things have changed since.
Madrid has not lost a match in any competition since that October setback, going unbeaten in 31 games to find itself four points ahead of its rival and three points up on second-place Atletico Madrid.
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Barcelona, meanwhile, has slipped to third but is coming off two morale-boosting victories going into Sunday’s game at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.
Here are five things to know about the 29th round of the Spanish league:
BALE LOOKS TO IMPACT
Gareth Bale wants to make a bigger impact against Barcelona this time after a muted performance in his debut clasico.
Bale has found his rhythm since a rash of injury setbacks tempered the start of his career at Madrid, with the Welsh winger going into the game on the heels of a two-assist performance in Tuesday’s 3-1 Champions League win over Schalke.
”I feel great, full of confidence,” said Bale, who has scored 14 goals and provided 17 assists.
While Bale is building up steam as the season reaches its finale, Barcelona counterpart Neymar appears to be sliding in the opposite direction as the Brazil striker never came off the substitute’s bench in Barcelona’s 7-0 win over Rayo Vallecano.
It’s been an unfamiliar season for Lionel Messi, so beating Madrid rival Cristiano Ronaldo on his home turf could provide some degree of satisfaction.
Messi has found his rhythm after several injury setbacks, with the Argentina forward scoring 12 goals in his last nine games to take his season tally to 31.
”We hope to play our best and earn a result that keeps us in the hunt,” Messi said. ”This is a unique opportunity to move in on Madrid. It’s not going to be easy going up against a great team, away from home, but we’ll give it a shot.”
CAN’T STOP CRISTIANO
While Messi is finally recovering from his early season woes, Ronaldo is in his usual lethal form for Madrid.
The Portugal forward reached the 40-goal mark for the fourth straight season at the club, scoring a pair against Schalke to take his season total to 41.
”Cristiano is a beast. Even when the team is having a poor game, he’s always there,” said Barcelona fullback Jordi Alba. ”If we want to have a chance at winning the league, we’ve got to win there.”
Ronaldo is now fourth on the club’s all-time leading scorer list behind Raul Gonzalez, Alfredo Di Stefano, and Carlos Santillana.
PRESSURE’S ON TATA
Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino’s future has been a daily talking point in the Catalan capital, and only a victory against Madrid will likely alleviate the pressure.
Martino has been buoyed by wins over Manchester City and Rayo Vallecano, but another poor performance could certainly leave ”Tata” sitting in the hot seat with reports the club is already looking for a new coach for next season.
”I’ve got no doubt about how we have to play” against Madrid, Martino said. ”The win (over Rayo) did nothing to change my thinking about the team I’ll pick against Madrid.”
Sunday’s match could also be goalkeeper Victor Valdes and defender Carles Puyol’s final clasicos, with the veteran pair set to leave the club at the end of the season.
With all the weekend’s attention on the clasico, Atletico can pile more pressure on its title rivals with a win at last-place Real Betis earlier Sunday.
Atletico enjoyed a full week’s rest after having already advanced in the Champions League, just what striker Diego Costa and the squad needed as they aim to stay in the title race right up until the close of the season, when it plays Barcelona on the last match day.
”Whatever happens in the clasico will benefit us,” Atletico defender Juanfran Torres said.
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