El Clasico: Real Madrid, Barcelona square off with La Liga title potentially in the balance

Real Madrid will host Barcelona in an El Clasico encounter that could very well determine the fate of this year's La Liga.

Real Madrid and Barcelona will square off in a highly anticipated El Clasico encounter. (Image: Twitter/@FCBarcelona)

The famed ‘El Clasico’ derby between Real Madrid and Barcelona is fixture that football fans around the world always look forward to. That being said, there was a feeling that the fixture wouldn’t be a title decider this season. Both teams have been beset by issues and Atletico Madrid were tearaway La Liga leaders at one point. However, a lot has changed over the past few matchdays. Atletico’s form has faltered and both Real and Barca now find themselves within touching distance of the leaders. And both will be keen to edge the other out in this new three-way race.

The points margin at play are fine for both sides. A win for Barcelona will take them two points clear of Atletico and a draw takes them top on goal difference. Meanwhile, Real need a win with a four-goal difference to pip their local rivals.

What’s old is new

The managers of both sides have had to work hard to get their respective teams out of a slump. Zinedine Zidane has had to to deal with a string of injuries and a midfield that struggles for mobility.

For his part, Barca manager Ronald Koeman struggled at first to get to grips with what system suits his side the best. He even warned early in the campaign that they might not compete for silverware.

Zidane found his solution when he made tactical tweaks to work around the limited mobility of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. It helps that neither has declined in terms of ability, of course.

On the attacking side of things, striker Karim Benzema is having his best season yet. The likes of Vinicius Jr. and Rodrygo are chipping in as well. The continued absence of Eden Hazard remains a worry but in recent times, it has not affected results.

Koeman’s major issue was settling on a formation that would guarantee a level of defensive solidity and attacking fluency. After trying a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, the current 3-4-3 has stuck the best.

Again, it helps that key players found form at the right time, most of all Lionel Messi. The Argentine wanted to leave last summer but has looked happier in recent times and may well sign a new deal after all.

Perhaps crucially, both teams have settled on styles of play that have suited them well in the past – albeit in new avatars. Real are now clinical and quick on the break; Barcelona are playing fluent, attacking football again.

On paper, at least, this game could not be more evenly matched.

Where El Clasico can be won or lost

Barcelona’s biggest issue will be coping without Ansu Fati, who is out with a knee injury and has an excellent understanding with Messi. On the plus side, Ousmane Dembele’s recent form might mean he isn’t missed as much.

Gerard Pique, Barcelona’s most experienced defender, is doubtful having suffered a knock to the knee. How Koeman sets up the side to defend against Real’s counter-attacks remains to be seen.

Perhaps the biggest positive for Barcelona in recent times has been Messi’s form. His 2021 stats are impressive and should he continue on this run of form, it’s hard to see Real being able to stop him.

That Zidane will come into this match without three first-choice defenders compounds matters. Raphael Varane is out with Covid-19, skipper Sergio Ramos is tending to a calf issue. Right-back Dani Carvajal, meanwhile, is dealing with a thigh injury.

On the bright side, Benzema and Vinicius Jr will provide a goal threat should Real manage to snuff out Barca’s attacking play.

(Viewers in India can watch El Clasico on Facebook Watch at 12:30 AM on Saturday, April 11)

Shayne Dias

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