Lionel Messi evades Real Madrid defenders in one of many Clasicos past. (Getty)
For the average La Liga team, or even the above average one – the Sociedads, and Villarreals, and even the Sevillas – a visit from Barcelona is an opportunity. A December clash with the league-leaders, with an 11-point gap separating favorite from underdog, is an opportunity to play free from the shackles of pressure. To embrace a lack of expectations. For the average La Liga team, Saturday would arrive, a city would stop, and there would be nothing to lose.
For Real Madrid, there is everything to lose. There is tension. And there is danger.
The first Clasico of the 2017-18 La Liga season (Saturday, 7 a.m. ET, BeIN Sports) comes not at a crossroads for Madrid, but rather at a potential tipping point. The reigning Spanish champions welcome Barcelona to the Bernabeu 11 points back of their Catalan rivals, albeit with a game in hand. A loss would put the title all but out of reach. And it’s a very real possibility.
Coming off a domestic-European double, not to mention a Spanish Super Cup demolition of Barcelona, Madrid’s ordinariness has been stunning. The last time it met Barca, over those two legs in August, the gulf in class was staggering, but in the other direction. The aggregate was 5-1 to Los Blancos, and pretty reflective of that gulf. Barcelona was still rocking from the Neymar saga. Uncertainty swirled at Camp Nou. Meanwhile, confidence bubbled in the capital, so much so that Cristiano Ronaldo’s suspension felt insignificant.
Four months later, it is Madrid on unstable ground. While Barcelona has been quietly efficient, Real has been noisily inconsistent. Misfortune and a few inexplicably poor performances dug it an early hole. Pressure piled onto Zinedine Zidane, the FIFA manager of the year. And it hasn’t abated.
Such is life at Real Madrid, where success is only sufficient if followed by more success. And that’s why Saturday is so pivotal. It’s not ridiculous to suggest a loss could spell the beginning of the end for French boss. It’s ridiculous that it’s not ridiculous to suggest that. But it’s how the crisis cycle spins at a superclub – the superclub.
Whereas for others the 11-point gap would blunt expectations, for Madrid it heightens urgency. It turns expectation into necessity. And it shunts Madrid into a position from which many of its problems have arisen this season. It hasn’t coped well with the constant requirement of three points. Poor finishing has left it not just frustrated, but flustered. In a way, it has led to overexertion, to a point of compromising tactical intelligence. Transitional positioning has been poor. Attacks haven’t been measured.
Potentially impending crisis aside, Madrid is still the favorite. Its 11, finally fully fit, is more talented than Barcelona’s. A fervent Bernabeu crowd should provide a lift as well.
But it could just as easily be a reminder of the pressure. A reminder of the peril. A reminder of the potential short-, medium- and long-term consequences of a loss, or even a draw. Madrid doesn’t expect three points; it needs them. If, in chasing them, it throws all three away, its season, and perhaps even this dominant era, could spiral out of control.
Real Madrid (4-3-1-2): Keylor Navas; Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, Marcelo; Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric; Isco; Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo
Bale would be Zidane’s bold call. Karim Benzema very well could retain his place instead. But everything else appears to be set.
Barcelona (4-1-3-2): Marc-Andre Ter Stegen; Sergi Roberto, Gerard Pique, Thomas Vermaelen, Jordi Alba; Sergio Busquets; Ivan Rakitic, Paulinho, Andres Iniesta; Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez
It’s often listed as a 4-4-2, but Busquets holds while Paulinho retains box-to-box freedom, with Rakitic and Iniesta beside him – but not exactly wide.
Manager Ernesto Valverde could revert to a 4-3-3, but he’s dealing with a dearth of healthy wingers at the moment. At the back, Vermaelen should remain the replacement for the injured Samuel Umtiti. The only other difficult decision is Nelson Semedo vs. Roberto at right back.
How to watch
Why is the game so early in the United States? Because 7 a.m. ET is primetime (8 or 9 p.m.) in Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo and other Asian meccas. La Liga wants to capture that audience as much as, if not more than, the American one.
Assuming you will spring out of bed to watch what should be one of the games of the season, here’s how you can:
Time: 7 a.m. ET
TV: BeIN Sports, BeIN Sports Español
Online: BeIN Sports Connect