When Leo Messi suffered a knee ligament injury against Las Palmas eight weeks ago, it seemed like Barcelona’s ambition was simply to not lose touch with Madrid at the top. They trailed by a point and most thought that if they could just hang on there until Messi returned, they would be satisfied. In Madrid, meanwhile, many saw it as an opportunity to open up a lead. Instead, and despite the fact that they have faced arguably harder games so far this season, Barcelona come into this game three points clear. A Barcelona win would put them clear by six points and head-to-head goal difference. Not decisive, but hugely significant.
“What’s a play for you?” Rafa Benítez was asked. “Three very, very important points,” he said. “Points to help us keep fighting for the league.” True. But for him there is more than that. His side have lost only once all season and a victory would put them back on top, with Benítez saying that he thinks playing at home makes Madrid favourites, but the pressure has become intense.
Right back in the summer, at least one seniour player was expressing doubts about the manager and when James said in Colombia that his performances were “for those who said I was not ready”, he seemed to be pointing at Benítez. Cristiano Ronaldo’s performances have been well below his usual level and he has cut an uncomfortable figure this season. In the press, many have been waiting for Benítez from the start, knives sharpened, ready to leap on him.
The truth is that Madrid have rarely played well and against Sevilla their second half collapse was startling. It came three days after they somehow defeated PSG 1-0 despite getting dominated from start to finish, a result many media rightly called a miracle. Keylor Navas, their goalkeeper, has been the season’s outstanding player.
Then there’s the style question. Rafa Benítez is rather defensive about accusations that he is defensive. His final press conference before the clásico was packed with short, sometimes spiky answers. He denied reports that Madrid’s players have called a meeting to ask him to play more offensively against Barcelona — when a journalist from Radio Marca opened a later question with “I’m telling you the story is true,” he replied: “I’m telling you it is false” — and insisted that “the most offensive team is the one that takes the most shots and scores the most goals.” And that team, of course, is Real Madrid.
Shots and goals are not the only measure, though, and even if they are, they can be a double edged sword. If they reveal that Madrid are taking more shots on average per game than Barcelona, 12-10, they also reveal that the increased organisation and defensive security that many assume has been characteristic of Madrid this season may need unpacking, so too the idea that, until the last few weeks, Barcelona have been disastrous in defence. In fact, Keylor Navas has had to make more saves per game than Claudio Bravo. And when he was absent in Sevilla, they let in three.
Navas is back and so are the rest of the players. Benítez has had twelve days and a full squad to work with. International week has been kind to him: Five players, including Ronaldo, Bale and Modric, were let off and five more were ruled out with injuries that do not rule them out of this game. At last, they are all fit.
“’Without Messi’?,” Benítez said. “I would say [we have been] without a pile of injured players. This is only the second time this season I have had every player available.” The question now is how he fits them all together. It’s tempting to conclude that the team is More likely to be imbalanced when everyone is available than when one or two are not.
* So, Leo Messi. Eight weeks on, he is back. Whether he will start or begin the game as a sub is the big doubt and tests will be undergone on Friday and Saturday before a final decision is made. Without him, Neymar and Suárez have taken on responsibility, scoring the club’s last sixteen league goals between them, with eight each. With Messi back there is huge optimism. Even as they kept playing well everyone kept saying how they missed him. Now he’s here. But, Luis Suárez warned, “when you think you’re the favourite, the opposite happens.”
* “My son is going and that says it all.” Spain’s Interior Minister turned to a well-worn political tactic to underline how safe the Santiago Bernabéu will be on Saturday, following the attacks in Paris. The secretary of state for sport meanwhile said that he did not want to reveal what the new security measures would be, but called on supporters to get there early. Over a thousand police will be on duty, plus the usual stewarding and security staff. Every bag will be check and every sandwich too, according to one police spokesman, while there will a perimeter set up around the stadium and ID checks too.
* Two fierce rivals, face to face. Tickets sold out. A cracking atmosphere guaranteed. It’s just a pity that the Galician derby had to fall on the same weekend as Madrid-Barcelona, where it will end up getting swallowed up.