Stuttering Barcelona face must-win El Clasico against Real Madrid to reenter La Liga race

Real Madrid can extend their La Liga lead with a win over Barcelona on Sunday.  

MADRID — Real Madrid goes into Sunday’s second El Clasico of the campaign confident of a huge step towards the title, while Barcelona really, badly, desperately need a win to keep its challenge alive.

When the final whistle blew in their previous meeting — at Barcelona’s Camp Nou in October — the Catalan side was six points clear in the table, and its big summer signing Neymar had been man of the match.

Madrid looked a poor side that day, with manager Carlo Ancelotti unsure of his best tactics, players still not recovered from the turbulence of Jose Mourinho’s final season in charge, and a record transfer — Gareth Bale — subbed off early after having a stinker.

A lot has happened in the five months since, and most of it positive for Madrid. Ancelotti’s side is now 31 games unbeaten in all competitions, and sits atop the Primera Division standings. Barca is now third, four points off the leaders, having often played like a drain in recent months. Many in the Spanish capital now see second place Atletico Madrid, which sits a point ahead of Barca, as Madrid’s real challengers for the title.

While Cristiano Ronaldo has continued his excellence — two goals in Tuesday’s straightforward 3-1 Champions League win over Schalke brought him to 41 already this season — Bale’s resurgence symbolizes his side’s turnaround. Despite regular injury absences the Welsh winger now has a La Liga leading 17 assists in all competitions, after adding three more against Schalke midweek.

"€œWe are playing well, with a lot of confidence and we’re on a good run," Bale said after that game. "Now we have to prepare really well for Barcelona. They have very good players, but so do we."

Ancelotti also has a settled side right now. The loss of attacking starlet Jese Rodriguez to a season-ending knee injury is a blow, but the return of center-forward Karim Benzema from a minor thigh problem is well-timed.

The Italian coach, who has admitted his surprise selection for the first Clasico was a mistake, confirmed on Saturday he would send out his usual starting XI — Pepe and Sergio Ramos in central defense, Angel di Maria in midfield — on Sunday.

"Our idea is to play our game and show our quality," Ancelotti said. "We are very motivated. We will go out to play attacking football. To attack together and defend together."

Barca boss Gerardo Martino would give a lot for such certainty and balance. The season’s first Clasico also marked a turning point for him, but in the other direction.

Injury issues removed key players including Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Victor Valdes and Carles Puyol from the side for significant spells, but more damaging has been off-pitch turmoil around the Camp Nou — symbolized by the legal issues concerning Neymar’s contract which saw Sandro Rosell resign as club president in January.

Neymar himself also missed a month through injury, and has scored just once since his return in mid-February. The Brazilian starlet was on the bench for last weekend’s 7-0 La Liga win over Osasuna, in which more in-form starting options Pedro Rodriguez and Alexis Sanchez both scored.

That result was welcome, but still did little to quiet rumors that Martino will leave the Camp Nou this summer. The under pressure coach is expected to return to a possession-based tactical approach on Sunday, and include all three pint-sized playmakers Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Cesc Fabregas in Barca’s starting XI. He admitted on Saturday that it was now or never for his side’s title chances.

"There will be nine games left and it getting back one point is not the same as seven," the Argentine said. "The big teams do not slip up so often. A draw is not a good result. We need to win."

DRAWING UP CONCLUSIONS

The key player in most recent Barca victories at Madrid has been Messi, who is slowly re-finding his form after that injury absence. A hat trick performance against Osasuna last Sunday took him to an all-time club record of 371 goals for Barcelona. And the next record in the 26-year-old’s sights is another El Clasico goal to move ahead of current topscorer — Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stefano.

Messi might well be extra-motivated by this idea, as teammate Iniesta said this week that such big occasions tend to lift this Barca side.

"There is always pressure going to the Bernabeu," the World Cup winner said. "We have had to decide various La Liga titles there, as we do now. We must play a perfect game. That is what we will go there to do."

With Madrid playing so confidently right now, Barca will likely need something almost perfect to win. Otherwise Ancelotti and Bale will close to winning the La Liga title at the first attempt.