CLASICO WIN COULD BE THE SWEETEST FOR MADRID
Zinedine Zidane would never admit it, but Real Madrid can practically win LaLiga by beating Barcelona in Saturday's Clasico at Camp Nou.
A 2-1 win in Catalonia last season - secured by Cristiano Ronaldo in the 85th minute, despite the dismissal of Sergio Ramos - added light gloss to a desperate domestic season, as Madrid closed to within seven points of eventual champions Barca.
Repeat the dose and they will be champions-elect, no matter how many weeks are left.
Madrid lead Barca by six points at the top of the table. Extend that to nine on Saturday and Luis Enrique's side will need to produce something that would rewrite the history books to retain their title.
Only one team has ever won LaLiga from a nine-point deficit in the league's history, although Barca fans will take heart from that side being one of their own.
Louis van Gaal's 1998-99 vintage were nine points behind Real Mallorca in December 1998, but won 19 of their next 24 games to top the league by a whopping 11 points from Madrid come May.
That Mallorca side, however, were a mercurial outfit, the wispy Ariel Ibagaza their creative heartbeat.
Zidane's Madrid are a more efficient unit which many onlookers have wrongly judged to lack personality.
It is interesting that one of the most gifted players of a generation, if not all time, opts for safety and security as his central theme, but Zidane's 4-3-3 system offers exactly that.
Of course the talented trio of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo are capable of fireworks and Luka Modric is one of this era's most silken playmakers, but Zidane will be ecstatic that Casemiro has returned to his side ahead of this clash after two months out with a fractured leg.
Rafa Benitez felt under pressure not to utilise him, despite a desire to, but Zidane's standing at the club means he can select the team as he sees fit and a midfielder offering protection to a back four that can be as adventurous as it is solid is vital.
Only Villarreal have conceded fewer goals than Madrid this season. Of course, for all the claims of their defensive focus, they are still top scorers. An astonishing 20 different players have found the net for Madrid in all competitions this season, the most recent was Zidane's son Enzo in the Copa del Rey.
That form has helped Madrid go 32 games unbeaten under Zidane, winning 25 of those, and a 26th victory this weekend would be the sweetest of them all.
THE NUMBERS GAME
Both Madrid and Barca have suffered key absences in midfield this season, with Modric and Andres Iniesta falling to injury. The numbers suggest Zidane has coped with that better than Luis Enrique, as both playmakers prepare to play on Saturday.
- Barca have averaged 3.1 goals per game in the nine games Iniesta has played this term, that figure dips to 2.4 when the captain is unavailable.
- By contrast, Madrid have stepped up in Modric'sabsence. Perhaps losing the Croatian's scheming prompts them to go more direct as their goals-per-game rate jumps from 2.5 to 3.6.
- When Modric is laid low, Madrid's replacements have proved valuable. Marco Asensio has scored in every competition so far this term, while Isco has contributed two goals and three assists.
- Luis Enrique's second string has been second rate. Andre Gomes is yet to score or assist a goal this term and has played only 62.8 per cent of his passes in opposition territory, compared to Iniesta's 73.4 per cent.
- Returning from knee ligament damage, Iniesta will hope his greater experience in this fixture can shine through. The Barca skipper was instrumental in the 4-0 win at the Santiago Bernabeu last season, scoring and assisting.
- Modric has been involved in five Clasico wins from 10 outings, but his ability to shine in the fixture has been less apparent, with just one assist in that time.
"Regardless of the result, I don't think anyone could say it is decisive.
"It is the 14th game of the season. Clearly Madrid could take a very interesting lead, but whatever the result I don't think it will be determinant in the league.
"The game is a chance to beat Real Madrid and to get closer to the top of the table, nothing more.
"It's important to win the Clasico as they are a direct opponent with the same aspirations as us, but to think winning would put all criticism behind us is not going to happen. There will always be criticism."
"There is no favourite for me, it is 50-50. We have to tighten our asses like we did last time.
"We have studied Barcelona and they have no weak points - they are a very strong team.
"I think we can definitely get a good result if we replicate the intensity from the derby against Atletico. I do not expect Barcelona to play like they did against Real Sociedad, though. They are champions and champions always play well in big games.
"It will be different than the last Clasico. We went to Camp Nou in a difficult position. Things are different now."