The winner of the 2016-17 La Liga title wil be effectively decided when Real Madrid host arch-rivals Barcelona in the latest instalment of El Clasico on Sunday at the Santiago Bernabueu.
Los Blancos have a game in hand and a three-point advantage over La Blaugrana, which means the visitors would be desperate for a win and seek to establish their dominance early on.
An ideal scenario for leaders, who prefer to play on the counter and against a misfiring Barcelona side that were unceremoniously dumped out of the Champions League in midweek, they will be fancying their chances on their home turf.
It was a lucky win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League for Zinedine Zidane’s men, as they were second-best for a majority of both legs yet somehow managed to scrape through.
That’s been the theme all year long, but one feels that as the business end of the season approaches, they are going to churn out their best and what’s a bigger game than a home Clasico?
Gareth Bale has returned to training but after his sub-par displays all season-long, Zidane may be tempted to leave the Welshman on the bench. Isco started in his stead against Bayern, but wasn't too effective and perhaps the faster, more direct, Marco Asensio could see a rare start.
Their defensive woes continue, with centre-backs Pepe and Raphael Varane continuing their time on the treatment table, it will be Nacho and captain Sergio Ramos starting in the heart of the defence on Sunday.
What they are saying: “It (El Clasico) really is a thrilling game. The world grinds to a halt to watch this game. It is massive, every player wants to play and the people on the street are already talking about it up to a month beforehand,” Real Madrid full-back Marcelo (as per www.realmadrid.com).
Injury absentees: Raphael Varane (Achilles), Pepe (Ribs), Gareth Bale (Calf)
Suspension Alert: None
La Blaugrana are without Neymar for this massive clash and while the appeal for his suspension has gone to CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport), it is unlikely that the Brazilian will feature on Sunday. This prompts an offensive reshuffle for Luis Enrique, with Paco Alcacer and Arda Turan the front-runners to replace the Brazilian. While neither can say they can match Neymar’s quality, they would put in a real shift. However, it is uncertain if Turan would be able to overcome an adductor injury and if that is the case, Alcacer will definitely start.
Javier Mascherano is available, but Enrique is set to continue with Samuel Umtiti and Gerard Pique in centre defence and Jordi Alba is likely to continue at left-back.
Without Neymar, the spotlight will be even more intensely focused on Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. The diminutive Argentine had a rare off-day against Juventus in midweek and his poor record in recent Clasico’s will spur him on to give the world a timely reminder of his talents.
What they are saying: “I have great memories of the 4–0 win (Last season at the Santiago Bernabeu), not just because we won, but also how we did it, because we were very much superior.We want to win this game. We need to and we are going into it with a lot of confidence,” Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic (as per www.fcbarcelona.com).
Injury absentees: Aleix Vidal (Ankle), Rafinha (Knee), Arda Turan (Adductor)
Suspension Alert: Neymar