No Neymar, no party? That was the doomsday scenario many envisaged for Barcelona this season, but the implosion simply hasn’t happened. In fact, victory over Real Madrid this Saturday will stretch their lead over Los Blancos to a whopping 14 points.
Will they take the spoils at the Santiago Bernabeu? Here’s football odds expert Adrian Clarke with his pre-match thoughts on a very important El Clasico…
Ernesto Valverde’s version of Barcelona has me completely stumped. They’re a real conundrum.
On the face of it, they appear to be spectacularly good.
Scoring the most goals, conceding the joint fewest, and boasting a +35 goal difference from 16 unbeaten matches in La Liga, the Catalans are six points clear of their nearest rivals and absolutely flying.
Yet bizarrely they leave me feeling pretty cold most times I watch them play.
💬 Our captain @SergioRamos has spoken ahead of Saturday’s big match! Click the link to see what he had to say about the #RMClasico and our recent form! 👇#RealMadrid | #HalaMadridhttps://t.co/GhRjadJQHt
— Real Madrid C.F.🇬🇧 (@realmadriden) December 20, 2017
While undoubtedly stronger defensively, they are also more stilted on the ball and less attractive to watch than any side I’ve seen at the Camp Nou in recent memory. Unusually, flair is in limited supply. If Messi isn’t magic, no one else is.
So are Barca’s class of 17-18 the real deal? Or is it a case of their main Spanish rivals going downhill?
I suspect this El Clasico is likely to provide us with the answers.
Zinedine Zidane’s side arrive as the newly crowned FIFA World Club Cup winners, but they will need to step up their game to win this one.
A campaign that began so promisingly with a two-legged victory over Barcelona in the Super Cup has meandered along unspectacularly.
They did wallop Sevilla 5-0 in their last home game, but Cristiano Ronaldo is their top scorer in La Liga with just four goals. Not a single Real Madrid player features in the Top 20 list of the season’s goal charts. It’s remarkable.
We know that this is just the type of contest that could lift them, and transform their entire mood of course, but at 27/25 I find them a difficult team to support.
It should be noted that Barcelona have won 3-2 and 4-0 on their last two league visits to the Bernabeu, and given how secure they feel defensively, the leaders will be eyeing up a third straight success in the capital.
The absence of injured defender Samuel Umtiti throws a slight spanner in the works, as I’m not a huge fan of his replacement Thomas Vermaelen, but with a midfield as hardworking and disciplined as theirs, the home back four will get plenty of protection.
I do see this is as one of the more low-scoring El Clasicos.
Barca won’t be expansive, and little we’ve seen so far suggests Real Madrid will suddenly click into free-scoring mode either.
It’s a big leap to expect them to turn the magic tap on, just for this game.
He didn’t win the Balon d’Or, but we all know Lionel Messi is the best player involved – and when you consider he’s been directly involved in 19 La Liga goals (eight more than anybody else) it’s clear his form is pretty healthy too.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) December 20, 2017
Messi has 24 goals in this fixture, more than anyone else in history, and I’d be happy to back him to score the first goal at 17/4. If you think the little maestro will run the show, you can get 7/1 on him to score and provide an assist.
Don’t be surprised if this match warms up in the second period.
Barcelona are very much a ‘second half team’ and that moniker is backed up by stats.
In the final half hour of La Liga matches this season Real Madrid boast an amazing 20-1 goals record, which is far in advance of Barca’s 8-2. They finish like a hungry boar, preying on tired opponents.
Look, anything could happen here. It’s El Clasico, which means it’ sensible to expect the unexpected.
However, based on what I’ve seen with my own eyes this season I have to forecast a solid, professional and fairly gritty Barcelona win.
This is by no means a vintage Barca outfit, but this season they are clearly a superior team unit than the European champions. I can’t back against them.