A rising 'clásico'
Madrid and Barça head into the final stretch of the season on an upward trajectory in the fight for honours
BarcelonaAs Peret's song goes, "no estaba muerto, estaba de parranda" ("he wasn't dead, he was partying"). Barça and Real Madrid reach the final stretch of the season with an upward dynamic after the doubts of the first months. In the case of Los Blancos, they head into the Clasico in high spirits after Tuesday's emphatic 3-1 win over Liverpool. On Azulgrana soil, the good play was conspicuous by its absence in the last game against Valladolid, but when it seemed that things could go wrong Dembélé appeared in the 90th minute to continue extending the winning inertia of Barça, which has taken 51 of the 57 possible points in the last 19 games in La Liga. According to Twitter data specialist MisterChip, only one team with a run like this (or better) has failed to lift the title. That was Real Madrid in 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2014-15.
While Atletico Madrid continue to fade and have seen their lead at the top of La Liga shrink from 12 to just one point behind Barca and three behind Zinedine Zidane's side, Ronald Koeman's side are relying on themselves to challenge for a title that seemed a pipe dream at the end of 2020. Also still immersed in the struggle is the white team, aware of the importance of the classic, in which some of the most outstanding duels will be lived, such as the one between Messi and Benzema as leading scorers of their teams.
The goal leaders
Talent and goalscoring tend to come from the Argentinian and the Frenchman. Messi is the top scorer in the history of the clásico, with 26 goals in 44 meetings with Los Blancos. This season the azulgrana captain leads the scoring charts in La Liga with 23 goals and has also provided 10 assists in 27 games (29 and 13 in all competitions, with a total of 38 games). Benzema is the one who has scored the most goals this season with Los Blancos in the regularity championship (18) and has provided 6 assists in 25 matches (the number of goals increases to 24 in all competitions, with a total of 34 matches).
The French striker, who's all-time record in the Clasicos has nine goals in 35 games, has not seen a goal against Barça for nine games - since the 2017 Spanish Super Cup return. But the Frenchman has scored in the last six Liga games he has played in. "We'll have to keep a close eye on Messi. He does everything on the pitch and we know he is very dangerous", he acknowledged in statements to the media before defining the classic as "the best game in the world". Griezmann, with eight goals, and Casemiro, with five, are the second-highest scorers for their teams in La Liga. Barça have scored 68 goals and Los Blancos 51 - the same as Atletico - in 29 games. In the shadow of Messi and Benzema, Dembélé and Vinícius are also claiming their share of the limelight, while Real Madrid will be hoping Hazard is available for the game.
From supporting players to protagonists
Messi and Benzema are old acquaintances, but this season both teams have been nurtured by a priori secondary players, but who have ended up having trunk roles. In the case of Barça, the name of Pedri stands out. Having turned 18 in November and with only one season of second division experience in his resume, the canary has amazed Koeman, his teammates, and the fans. The former Las Palmas player made his debut in October in his first clásico, playing on the right wing in a game in which he did not stand out but in which the Dutch coach already placed him as a starter. Pedri has participated in all Barça's Liga matches: he has been a starter in 21 and is the seventh player in the squad (adding all competitions) that has played more minutes (2,923). "It's a very important game for the Liga", the midfielder from the Canary Islands admitted.
While Barça are boasting young talent, in a context in which the quality minutes of young players like Mingueza, Dest, and Araujo also have to be taken into account, Madrid has benefited from the great performance of Lucas Vazquez (29 years old). Whether as a right winger or, above all, as a right-back, filling in for Carvajal's injury-plagued season, the Galician player has become Zidane's eighth most-used player in all competitions.
The Clasico will take place without a classic player: Sergio Ramos. The injury in his left calf muscle was announced by his club the day after the centre-back played the last five minutes of the match between Spain and Kosovo on March 31, in order to continue accumulating international caps. "If there is one thing that hurts me, it is not being able to help the team in these demanding games in which the season is at stake", he wrote on social networks. The Andalusian, who has not missed any of the last 21 clásicos, will see Messi equal him as the player who has participated more times in this special confrontation: 45.
Thus, the match will be orphaned of one of the rivalries that have marked the last two decades the most. Since 19 November 2005, Ramos and the Argentine have met 42 times in matches between the Catalan and Madrid teams, with 19 wins for the azulgrana captain, 14 for the white leader and 9 draws. Pique, a player who seems born to play in such games, could be the other major absentee from Saturday's clásico.