If one talks about the single most anticipated football fixture in the world - not considering additional factors like a Champions League knockout tie or a cup final, it has got to be the El Clasico, where Spain's two powerhouses -- Real Madrid and Barcelona -- take on each other. Over the years, the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona saw some of the most engrossing footballing moments. With Lionel Messi leading the Barca lines for over a decade now and Cristiano Ronaldo spearheading Real Madrid between 2009 and 2018, the two teams dominated Spain and Europe. Now, with Ronaldo gone to Juventus and Messi left with a Barcelona that is all but a shadow of its glory years, the two footballing giants are having to toil in Europe.
While Barcelona drew their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie against Napoli, 1-1, away at San Paolo Stadium, Real Madrid suffered a 2-1 defeat at home to Pep Guardiola's Manchester City. Neither of the two sides, thus, have an advantage going into the second leg of the Champions League, which makes Sunday night's El Clasico all the more important.
Barca with slender lead
As things stand, Barcelona sits top of the table with a slender lead of 2 points which the Blaugrana club gained last week when Real Madrid lost 1-0 to Levante. With Luis Suarez out for the season with injury and Antoine Griezmann still not coming to terms with the system at Barcelona, it is all up to Lionel Messi to deliver if Barca wants to entertain any hope of winning a silverware this season. Defensively, Barca has had major problems this season, and with Gerard Pique not a certain for the Clasico, one can't blame Barca fans for being a little on-the-edge ahead of the all-important match.
Solid-looking Real Madrid down but not out
Real Madrid, on the other hand, has improved leaps and bounces since the return of the club legend Zinedine Zidane as manager just before the 2018-19 season ended. Under Zidane 2.0, Real have looked solid defensively, if one compares the team with Real Madrid of the past. But there are issues with Real Madrid and those issues have pushed Los Blancos to a point where their whole season could collapse in a matter of 2 games.
In Zizou's first stint as coach, he won 3 back to back Champions Leagues making that Real squad, the undisputed kings of Europe. A large part of that team's success can be credited to the exceptional midfield trio of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro. Luka Modric (now 34) emerged as one of the best midfielders in the world under Zidane. The Croat, for all his exploits, however, is not getting any younger and now finds it difficult to cope with younger, faster, upcoming footballers. The introduction of Valverde in the mix has helped Real's midfield to a certain extent but it looks only a shadow of its brilliant past.
The biggest issue Real has is in front of the goal. It is virtually impossible to replace a player like Cristiano Ronaldo and his 50 goals per season. The situation becomes further complicated with players like Eden Hazard and Marco Asensio injured, Luka Jovic not winning any accolade for his performances and Gareth Bale's inconsistent appearances in the side. In such a situation, the burden for scoring goals drops on the shoulder of Karim Benzema and two 19-year-olds in Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo (who is suspended for the game after seeing red in a Castilla game).
The aftermath of UCL loss to Manchester City
The situation is not ideal by any stretch of the imagination in the Los Blancos camp. With the loss against Manchester City, there is additional pressure on Zidane ahead of the Clasico. As Zizou himself said in a presser before the City game, "Real Madrid's whole season could depend on what happens in the next one week," now, it all comes down to facing their arch-rivals Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Barca's love affair with Santiago Bernabeu
Barcelona's record at Santiago Bernabeu is nothing short of brilliant. In their last 12 matches at Real Madrid's home ground, Barcelona has won 8. If they win Sunday's clash, they would make it 5 out of 5 wins in their last 5 encounters at Santiago Bernabeu. Somehow Real's fortress has been breached far too often by the club from Blaugrana in recent times.
All said and done, the clash is still mouthwatering. Real Madrid would have the extra motivation of coming back from the CL defeat. Zidane would want to keep the league title hope alive by defeating Barcelona and regaining the top spot in the La Liga. Irrespective of what the outcome is, the fans from both camps are in for a tense couple of hours.
Watch: James Rodriguez and Luka Modric ahead of all-important El Clasico