Defeat to Barcelona is an uninviting thought for Real Madrid at the best of times, but the La Liga champions enter the first El Clasico of the season with no margin for error.
Losing at home to their fiercest rivals would see Zinedine Zidane’s men slip a massive 14 points behind the league leaders Barca, and could see club president Florentino Perez reaching for his manager-removing trigger.
Such is the pressure of this game for Real Madrid, who are 23/20 to win, and their array of underperforming stars.
Victory for Barcelona is priced at 43/20 and would leave Ernesto Valverde with one hand on the title while the visitors would return to Catalonia more than happy should they emerge with a draw at 14/5.
La Liga’s reigning champions are fourth in the table heading into El Clasico, having dropped points in six of their 15 league games so far. It is a doom-and-gloom scenario so far this term, but the shoots of recovery are there for Zidane.
They are just back from winning the Club World Cup, with victories against Al Jazira and Gremio sure to have boosted their confidence levels.
Having played a game less than Barcelona, the home side go into this contest knowing victory, and winning their game in hand, would cut their arrears right down to five points and blow the title race wide open again.
That is the pre-Christmas carrot dangling for Real Madrid and their recent La Liga form is also a source of encouragement. Los Blancos have won five on the spin at the Bernabeu recently, keep clean sheets in four of those, and scoring 16 times. Last time out they fired five past Sevilla.
Of course, they haven’t faced the well-oiled machine that is Barcelona in that time. Valverde has impressively delivered a more polished defensive unit this season (seven goals conceded in 16 games) whilst maintaining Barca’s attacking impetus to the tune of 42 La Liga goals scored already.
It is potent mixture although Barca have managed to find the net only once in their away trips to Atletico Madrid and Valencia (second and third in the table) this season. With defeat not an option, the home side may attempt to keep things tight and Barcelona to score under 1.5 goals at 5/6 is worth considering.
A big question for Zidane will be the use, or otherwise, of Gareth Bale. The Wales winger is being touted in the Spanish press to leave the club and he needs a big moment to ignite his season.
There have been some encouraging signs from the former Spurs man in recent cameos. With Real struggling in last week’s Club World Cup semi-final against Al Jazira, Bale came off the bench to score the winner.
He was also sprung from the bench in the final and came close to a spectacular goal, only to be thwarted by the goalkeeper. Bale’s injury problems are undermining his position at Real Madrid and he badly needs a run of sustained fitness to rescue his career in Spain.
Bale has managed just a dozen appearances in all competitions so far this season, the majority of those coming from the bench.
His case hasn’t been helped with Zidane abandoning the famed 4-3-3 formation that facilitated the ‘BBC’ of Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo and it is more than likely the former will settle for a place on the bench on Saturday.
Zidane’s faith in his countryman Benzema remains unflappable. The coach suggested recently that he will “continue to defend him until the death”. That’s in spite of Benzema’s record of just four goals in 19 appearances this season.
Better news for Madrid supporters was that Ronaldo engaged in full training with his team-mates on Friday, seemingly ending the ‘will he, won’t he’ saga over his fitness for El Clasico.
The Portuguese should start and, at 3/1 to score the opening goal, Ronaldo remains the most likely Real Madrid player to inflict a wound on Barcelona. Casemiro and Sergio Ramos return after suspension to further boost the home side.
From a stats point of view, it is to be noted that the away side has prevailed in four of the previous six El Clasico meetings (two wins for each club). Barca have won 3-2 on their previous two visits to the Bernabeu and a repeat of that scoreline is 20/1 on Saturday.
Real’s 2-0 Super Cup win in August – completing a 5-1 two-legged rout – is the only time in six meetings that both teams have not scored in this fixture. These teams do not deal in ‘bore draws’, with El Clasico failing to produce a goalless draw since 2002. A goalless stalemate is 16/1 this time around.
Real have won eight trophies in two years under the guise of their former talismanic playmaker Zidane.
His iconic status as a player at the club has perhaps helped him through what was a troubled start to this season but, despite the Club World Cup win last week, Zidane will fall under enormous strain if his team has slipped 14 points behind Barcelona before Christmas Day.
The pressure is enormous on the home side and the manager needs a big performance from his players.
The trouble is that Barcelona just seem better equipped this season. In the Champions League, the likes of Juventus and Olympiacos have shown it is more than possible to stifle Barcelona as an attacking force – and both held the Catalans to scoreless draws.
The trouble is that in those games the opposition was unable to pose any sort of attacking threat as a consequence of their holding tactics. That is the dilemma here for Zidane, stick of twist.
If his side are cavalier, Barca can pierce them quickly and we’ve seen that scoring two or three past Barcelona will be tough.
This is an intriguing tactical battle and it may result in a draw at odds of 14/5. While it is tempting to suggest a scoreless outcome given the price, history suggests these sides will produce goals so instead we’ll go with 2-2 at rewarding odds of 11/1.
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