Barcelona look for proof of progress against runaway leaders Real Madrid
The Clasico on Sunday will likely have very little bearing on the current season for either Barcelona or Real Madrid — but it should set the tone for the next one.
Atletico Madrid’s limp title defence, Sevilla’s late fade and Barca’s miserable start have all helped ensure Real Madrid, now 10 points clear at the top of La Liga, will almost certainly be crowned champions in May.
Those hoping for a dramatic finish have wondered if a comeback could yet be possible given Barca’s recent surge and Carlo Ancelotti has been trying to play down the idea the league is already won.
Asked on Monday, after their victory over Mallorca, how Real Madrid could ever lose the league from here, Ancelotti said: “How do you lose a Champions League final when you are 3-0 up? It happened to me once. I hope it doesn’t happen again.”
All logic, though, suggests the league is over, regardless of the result on Sunday. Even if they beat Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu and win their game in hand, Barcelona would be nine points behind Madrid, with nine games left to go.
To close the gap would require both Barca having a faultless finish and, more improbably, Madrid suffering a collapse, that for a solid and experienced outfit seems entirely inconceivable on the basis of what has gone so far.
“Winning La Liga will be very difficult,” said Xavi Hernandez last weekend after Barcelona’s win over Osasuna. “You can’t rule it out but we can’t be optimistic.”
The more tangible rewards on offer for the victor this weekend will be either Real Madrid tightening their grip on the trophy or Barcelona entrenching their place in the top four, with their chances of pipping Sevilla to second already growing by the week.
Transformed the mood
More significant, though, will be the impact the result has on how this season is viewed, which could in turn be hugely influential on how both clubs approach the summer.
For Barcelona, a win at the Bernabeu would put some substantial evidence behind the theory this team is ready to challenge again, certainly in Spain, even if not yet with the richest and most powerful clubs in Europe.
After the final days of Ronald Koeman, who increasingly saw the club’s crippling debts as an excuse for resignation and pessimism over poor results, Xavi has transformed the mood.
He took over with Barca lying ninth and they now sit third. They have not lost since December and have won their last four in a row, scoring 14 goals in the process.
Ousmane Dembele is reintegrated and revived. Pedri and Gavi have been superb. Even fringe players like Memphis Depay, Riqui Puig and Luuk de Jong have contributed.
The January signings have been decisive too, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Ferran Torres scoring 11 goals between them since the end of the transfer window.
“Auba has been a gift from heaven,” Xavi said last weekend.
If La Liga began on January 1, Barcelona would be top, which prompts the question: where would they be if Xavi had been appointed sooner?
Before Xavi’s first game on the bench back in November, Barca drew to Celta Vigo and Alaves, after losing to Rayo Vallecano. If they had won even just two of those, the title race might now be salvageable.
Instead, Barcelona fans are left with the hope they can finish this season as the strongest team in Spain, even if it is too late to finish top of the table.
That would hurt Madrid psychologically and an increasingly dangerous Barca might stiffen the resolve of Florentino Perez in the summer, with Kylian Mbappe widely expected to join and Erling Haaland still a target.
The Clasico, along with the Champions League, could also affect how Real Madrid view their own season overall.
Winning La Liga has not always been enough for Madrid to class a campaign a success and the tone could shift if they go out in the Champions League quarter-finals and Barca look like the team on the up.
When Barcelona lost to Real Madrid in extra-time in the Spanish Super Cup in January, many were surprised when the club’s president Joan Laporta delivered a celebratory speech in the dressing room afterwards.
“It seems a shame to say we feel proud when we lose,” Frenkie de Jong said soon after.
But that was the context two months ago, acceptance that Real Madrid were superior and excitement that a young Barca team were simply able to compete. On Sunday, they feel ready to win.
Athletic Bilbao v Getafe (2000)
Alaves v Granada (1300), Elche v Valencia (1515), Osasuna v Levante (1730), Rayo Vallecano v Atletico Madrid (2000)
Espanyol v Mallorca (1300), Celta Vigo v Real Betis (1515), Cadiz v Villarreal (1515), Sevilla v Real Sociedad (1730), Real Madrid v Barcelona (2000)