Barcelona (8-3-2, 2nd in La Liga) hosts rival Real Madrid (10-3-0, 1st) at Camp Nou this Saturday (10:15 am ET) in La Liga's 172nd edition of El Clásico.
The steaks for this season's first leg of El Clasico are high, especially for Barcelona.
Barca trails Real by six points through thirteen weeks coming into Saturday. A win for Barca would push them just three points clear from the top of the table, while a loss would put Los Blancos nine points clear of their Spanish counterparts.
Real Madrid has yet to lose a match in La Liga competition, boasting an impressive 10-3-0 record. But Barcelona will look to give Los Blancos its biggest test yet, and they have some encouraging news on their side.
Captain midfielder Andres Iniesta is expected to return to the starting eleven just in time for El Clasico since damaging his ligament six weeks ago versus Valencia. Iniesta's presence in the middle of the pitch will surely provide Barca with a spark--one that’s been missing in past weeks. Draws against Malaga and Real Sociedad in Barca's last two La Liga fixtures have left many questioning how good this year's squad is and whether or not they have the firepower to compete with Real Madrid for the Spanish title.
As for the other side of the coin, Real Madrid enter Saturday's contest not only as Spain's hottest club but also as Europe's most in-form team. Remarkably, Los Blancos have not lost a match in any competition since April 6th in a 2-0 loss at Wolfsburg in last season's Champions League. With a 6-1 Copa del Rey win over Cultural Leonesa Wednesday, Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane broke former boss and mentor Carlo Ancelotti's unbeaten streak of 31 games in all competitions at the helm. Zidane looks to extend the club streak to an astonishing 33 games on Saturday at Camp Nou with a win or draw.
Madrid will be without international superstars German midfielder Toni Kroos and Welsh winger Gareth Bale on Saturday. Kroos fractured his metatarsal Sunday against Leganes and is expected to miss six weeks. Bale dislocated his peroneal tendons (ankle) in a 2-1 Champions League win over Sporting Lisbon on November 22. He is expected to be out of the lineup for at least three months, although he did undergo a successful ankle operation Wednesday.
Expect Zidane to use winger Lucas Vazquez in Bale's replacement, and either Casemiro or Kovacic in the midfield alongside Luka Modric.
Barcelona’s side is mainly healthy, with the exception of center back Jeremy Mathieu who is definitely out. Left back Jordi Alba is also nursing ankle and knee problems, so his status remains questionable. To Barca’s advantage, however, the lethal attack of Messi-Suarez-Neymar will be ready to go full throttle in this one.
Oddly enough, Ancelotti's streak of 32 with Zidane as his assistant during the 2013-14 campaign was ended by none other than Barcelona. So as usual, we are in for a real football treat. Expect nothing short of a classic El Clasico.
Prediction: Barcelona 2, Real Madrid 2