There are three certainties in life: death, taxes and one of the two biggest teams in Spain being in crisis at any given moment.
Given that Barcelona and Real Madrid are almost exclusively at or near the summit of La Liga, the term “crisis” may be a bit of an exaggeration. But the pressure-cooker intensity of the fight for supremacy in Spain means that the Blaugrana and Los Blancos seem to undulate between joy and despair, on virtually a weekly basis.
For most of this campaign, it’s been Barca weaving in and out of existential dread. They played an unsatisfactory brand of soccer under Ernesto Valverde, who was relieved of his duties in messy circumstances.
A very public spat between sporting director Eric Abidal and Lionel Messi added to the off-field distractions, which were compounded by the accusation that president Josep Bartomeu used a PR firm to spread negative information about his enemies — including Messi and other Barcelona players.
On the field, the Catalans lost star striker Luis Suarez to injury for the remainder of the season, and made the uninspired decision to loan out potential replacement Carles Pérez in January, forcing a highly controversial emergency loan for Martin Braithwaite.
Barca go into Sunday’s Clásico on the back of a poor Champions League outing against an out-of-form Napoli side. However, the Catalans appear to be entering the crucial tie in a healthier position than their rivals.
With a comprehensive 5-0 win over Eibar last weekend — during which Messi scored four goals — Barca took a two-point lead atop La Liga, thanks to Real Madrid’s surprising loss to mid-table Levante. Real Madrid followed up that lackluster outing with a home defeat to Manchester City in the Champions League on Wednesday.
Los Blancos have won just one of their last five matches in all competitions and approach El Clásico on the back of two defeats in the space of four days. To compound their issues, Eden Hazard limped off in the defeat against Levante and will be unavailable for selection, while Rodrygo will be serving a ban following a red card for poor sportsmanship while playing for the reserve side.
It is never easy to predict a Clásico. Home advantage is bizarrely non-existent (the hosts have only won two of the last 14 meetings) and the form book typically goes out the window as tempers flare.
However, recent trends also appear to favor Barca. Real Madrid have lost on all of the last four occasions in which they have hosted Barcelona in the league, only managing to score during one of those games.
They are winless in the last seven meetings overall, although three have been draws, including the most recent stalemate in December. They have beaten Barcelona at the Bernabeu only once since 2014.
Of course, it is perfectly possible that Real Madrid will earn a rousing victory in this Clásico. After all, Barcelona’s midfield shortcomings were fully exposed in their loss to Napoli. Gennaro Gattuso's side successfully kept Messi quiet; the Argentine has run hot and cold this season, and if he isn’t in the mood to shine at the Bernabeu, the Blaugrana will lack creativity going forward.
It appears that the bookmakers also fancy a Real Madrid win. The hosts are priced as favorites (+115 on Bet MGM for the win, compared to +195 for Barca), and Zinedine Zidane’s side have a knack of delivering more than the sum of their parts on the biggest occasions.
In the struggle at the top of La Liga, just a few days can mark the difference between supremacy and crisis, and a loss could send Barca into the kind of catastrophic undulation that has defined their season thus far.
There’s no telling which way the chips will fall in this match, nor how the tempestuous title race will pan out in the 13 remaining matchdays of the season. However, recent form and Clásico trends suggest that this meeting is Barcelona’s to lose.
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