the questions that will determine the Classic

We are just over 24 hours from a Classic that will have considerable implications for this season’s LaLiga title race. Barcelona lead Real Madrid by nine points in the table and have won the last two meetings between the two sides, and a third win in a row would almost secure the league title for the Catalan club.

However, following an impressive Champions League round of 16 win over Liverpool, there is every reason to suggest that Madrid are beginning to make progress at the turning point of the campaign. They are the defending national champions of Spain and won the October meeting between the clubs in convincing fashion.

What should you expect when the two famous rivals line up on Sunday? (3 p.m. ET, broadcast live on ESPN+)? ESPN’s Barcelona and Madrid correspondents Sam Marsden and Alex Kirkland present the biggest stories before the game and make their predictions.

What relevance does the Clásico have and how can Madrid change the result?

Barcelona’s 1-0 victory at the Santiago Bernabéu in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final on March 2 was not a total fluke, although his goal, Franck Kessie’s shot into the net through Thibaut Courtois’s save and Eder Militao’s involuntary deflection, definitely. it was – but it was unusual. Madrid “dominated” the game, in the words of Courtois. Barcelona had a historically low possession of 35.4%, forced to sit down and defend in depth. Madrid had 13 shots against four for Barça. The difference in xG, or expected goals, was minimal: 0.57 for Madrid and 0.63 for Barça. Madrid’s problem was the definitive ball and creating high-quality chances. None of his shots hit the target.

– Broadcast on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (USA)
– Barcelona vs. Madrid: Sunday at 3 pm ET, broadcast live on ESPN+

For coach Carlo Ancelotti, the idea for Sunday’s LaLiga Clásico, and the second leg of the Cup on April 5, is simple: play the same way, but be more clinical in the last third.

“We simply have to repeat this game in Barcelona,” he said after the Cup game. “Defensively, with a lot of pressure, this has been one of Madrid’s best games. If we can play with this intensity, we will have more chances”.

Expect Madrid to keep up that high pressure, with the midfield – whether it’s Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Federico Valverde or Eduardo Camavinga – pushing up to disrupt Barca’s pace. It will be up to Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior to be more incisive in attack. Benzema had only one shot in that last game and Vinicius limited himself to two, unable to escape the attentions of Ronald Araujo.

Of course, Barcelona will also seek to improve in this Cup exhibition. It is hard to imagine that Xavi’s team has so little ball at the Camp Nou. –Kirkland

Are the two goalkeepers the most important players here? If so, what does that say about the state of the Clásico?

The Clásicos of the last 15 years have been largely defined by goalscorers and style players. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Modric and Andres Iniesta. However, ask the supporters of either club who their biggest players are currently and Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Courtois would probably be among the first. It suggests that the quality of this encounter may have diminished in recent years, but it shouldn’t take anything away from the two goalkeepers.

German stopper Ter Stegen is arguably having his best season since joining Barca nine years ago. In 25 LaLiga games he has conceded just eight goals, keeping a clean sheet in 19, both league tops at this stage of the campaign. Those eight goals conceded have come from an xGA (expected goals against) of 20.56. He has made 51 saves, some of them spectacular, including heroics in several 1-0 wins. Keeping goals out is only part of his job, mind you. He is also Barça’s first line of attack and has completed 82.5% of his 699 passes attempted in LaLiga. No goalie in the league has tried more and he has no higher success rate.

On paper, Courtois’s stats are not comparable this season, but his value for Madrid is similar. In the big moments, he is there. Ask Liverpool. He shut them out again on Wednesday as Madrid progressed in Europe, and was man of the match in last season’s Champions League final between the same two teams. Recent highlights include a great save against Real Valladolid in the 0-0 draw as Madrid grabbed three points and a massive save from Borja Iglesias in the recent goalless draw against Real Betis. –Marsden

Why do Madrid beat all the participants in the Champions League but often fight against Barça?

While Madrid have beaten some of Europe’s best in the past year, dispatching Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City in heroic fashion on their way to Champions League victory, Barcelona have proven to be a toughest test. Before Barca’s 1-0 win against the wall in the Cup, there was their resounding 3-1 victory in the Spanish Super Cup final on January 15. Yes, Madrid prevailed in LaLiga, going a comfortable 3-1 on October 16, but before that, Barça put in one of the most convincing performances by an away team at the Bernabéu in years last season, beating Madrid. 4-0 on March 20.

Look back a bit more, though, and Madrid’s record is considerably better. There were six Clásicos without defeat until that 4-0 win, including four consecutive victories in LaLiga in 2020 and 2021, for the first time since the 1960s. Xavi’s arrival at Camp Nou and Barça’s subsequent improvement, at least At the domestic level, it has made the match unpredictable once again. The comparison with last season’s Champions League victory is also somewhat misleading. Those epic comebacks were only necessary because of how poorly Madrid fared in their 1-0 first-leg loss to PSG, and for much of their 3-2 home and 4-3 away losses. against Chelsea and Manchester City.

In summary: this Real Madrid is capable of greatness, and of being very mediocre, and we have seen it both in the Classics and in Europe in recent seasons. –Kirkland

How is the Negreira case hanging over this match and affecting the relationship between these two clubs?

Barcelona’s payments to the former vice president of Spain’s arbitration committee are testing the bond developed between the two Clasico rivals in recent seasons. They are partners in the European Super League project and were among the only teams to turn down La Liga’s deal with private equity firm CVC for an instant cash raise in exchange for a future percentage of their TV money. The presidents Joan Laporta and Florentino Pérez are capable of seeing that, although they always want to win, both teams benefit if the other remains strong.

Madrid was the only LaLiga team that did not condemn the disclosure of Barça’s payments to former referee José María Enríquez Negreira in a letter released by the Spanish clubs two weeks ago. However, last weekend, after the prosecutors’ decision to file corruption charges against Barça, Madrid decided to join the complaint. Reports suggest that Barca expected that to happen due to mounting fan pressure on Pérez to perform, but they are also disappointed: TV3 suggested that Laporta will even cancel Sunday’s traditional pre-game directors’ lunch as a consequence.

Barça continue to declare their innocence in the face of the accusations, and Laporta says that they never “bought referees or influence”. For many, however, his image is already tarnished despite the fact that there is still no trial. And what happens on the pitch is being seen even through the prism of the case. Meanwhile, fans of opposition teams throw counterfeit bills during Barca games and chant for them to come down.

“It was sad to see it,” Xavi said after such incidents during the win over Athletic Club last weekend. Barça is being judged before its time, which is not good for society. –Marsden

Real Madrid player to follow

Vinicius. His lost battle with Araujo was the story of the last Clásico. But Vinicius is on form, scoring and starring in Madrid’s LaLiga win over Espanyol last weekend, and he will be determined to emerge victorious this time. –Kirkland

Barcelona player to watch

raphinha. Still stable after a summer switch from Leeds United, he has been Barca’s standout attacker in 2023 since Ousmane Dembele was injured. He scored the winning goal in 1-0 wins in each of Barca’s last two LaLiga games. In all, he now has five goals in his last 10 games and eight in 20 after scoring just once in his first 17 appearances. –Marsden

Expected starting eleven of Real Madrid

Courtois; Dani Carvajal, Militao, Nacho, Ferland Mendy; Eduardo Camavinga, Kroos, Modric, Valverde; Vinicius, Benzema. –Kirkland

Expected starting eleven of Barcelona

Ter Stegen; Araujo, Jules Kounde, Andreas Christensen, Alejandro Balde; Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong, Kessie, Gavi; Raphinha, Robert Lewandowski. –Marsden

score predictions

Barcelona 1-2 Real Madrid: A Madrid victory might not put them back in the title race, but a six-point gap would ensure leaders Barca cannot take it easy between now and the end of the season. –Kirkland

Barcelona 1-1 Real Madrid: A draw is enough for Barca to maintain their nine-point lead at the top, while Madrid could settle for one point and reserve their efforts for upcoming challenges in the Copa del Rey and the Champions League. –Marsden

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