Real Madrid demonstrated their tremendous mental toughness under pressure during their stunning run to Champions League glory last season. They came from behind against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City in a wild run into the final and won when it seemed almost impossible, when all hope was gone. On Sunday they host Barcelona in the Clasico, both sides unbeaten in La Liga but their opponents arrive in a state of starkly contrasting fragility, bruised from another harrowing night in the Champions League against Inter Milan.
The 3-3 draw at the Camp Nou left Barcelona on the verge of another humiliating elimination from the group stage, while Madrid have already completed qualifying for the last 16.
Leaders Barcelona, who also beat Madrid 4-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu last season, somehow arrive as underdogs and bear fresh wounds.
From the draw in Europe’s toughest group, to controversial refereeing decisions in Milan and several injured players, it’s been a tough road for the Catalans.
“It’s a cruel, hard blow, very cruel,” Xavi said after the draw against Inter. “Now we have to think about Madrid, the Clasico, recover and try to beat Madrid at the Bernabeu on Sunday, which won’t be easy.
“Let’s put the Champions League aside and focus on La Liga, we’re top of the table and we want to stay there. We hope it doesn’t affect us mentally or the morale of the players.”
Barcelona need to face Madrid with the right mentality. It would help them turn their frustration into righteous anger and steely resolve, but when that turns to desperation, they face collapse.
Against Inter Milan, they hit through Ousmane Dembele just before half-time, but after conceding the equalizer against Nicolo Barella in the second half, they broke apart on defense as they struggled for another goal.
It was similar to the second half against Celta Vigo last weekend where only goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen gave them a 1-0 win. Barcelona lost control and if they do that against Madrid they will inevitably be punished.
Madrid played poorly against Shakhtar Donetsk in Poland on Tuesday and still got the result they needed with a brave 95th-minute header from Antonio Rudiger.
“We showed that we never give up,” said Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti. “We played very badly and that can happen in football, but the most important thing is not to give up if you don’t succeed.”
Karim Benzema is fit again and hoping for the big stage after five consecutive appearances without scoring before he will attend Monday’s Ballon d’Or gala in Paris, where he is expected to lift the trophy.
Barcelona colleague Robert Lewandowski is the competition’s top scorer with nine and has scored twice against Inter, although some of his team-mates have failed.
Real Madrid have only kept one clean sheet in La Liga but despite conceding just one league goal, Barcelona’s defense appear to be in shambles and hope Jules Kounde can return from injury to put things back in order.
Regardless, Benzema and Madrid will be confident they can kick their rivals while they’re down.
Player to watch: Antoine Griezmann
After signing a new contract with Atletico Madrid until 2026, French striker Antoine Griezmann has been released from his contract. The striker was limited to only playing for short spells earlier in the season as the club tried to secure a new transfer deal with Barcelona for the loanee.
Griezmann played well in a 2-1 win over Girona last weekend, setting up a goal for Angel Correa and while others are tiring should he have enough energy reserves. He will need it against Ernesto Valverde’s Athletic Bilbao.
0 – Neither Real Madrid nor Barcelona have lost a game in the Spanish top flight. Will something give?
4 – Real Sociedad’s Mikel Merino tops the assists chart at four, with his creative influence being key to their good form.
19 – Barcelona goalkeeper Ter Stegen has saved 19 shots from 20 this season and has conceded just one goal in La Liga so far.
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