Even in the great history of El Clasico, this is a match anticipated like no other. Barcelona, still considered by many to be the greatest club side on the planet, pit themselves against Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid, expensively assembled and the pretenders to Barca’s throne both domestically and in the eyes of the planet-wide public.
Barca have tried to step out of the whirlwind of publicity before Monday evening’s match, the timing of which has caused a great deal of controversy. Coach Pep Guardiola will certainly be happy with the talking his players have done on the field, with last weekend’s quite remarkable 8-0 victory over hapless Almeria a warning shot to their Castilian rivals.
Not taking their eye from the ball for a second, Barca produced a performance of almost equal power when they defeated Panathinaikos 3-0 in Athens on Champions League duty on Wednesday evening, serenely booking themselves a place in the last 16 with an utterly dominant performance.
Looking ahead to Sunday’s match, Xavi explained to the media: “In this game Barcelona are favourites. We play at home, we are in very good shape and we have a burning desire to win.”
These sentiments were echoed by Dani Alves, who stated: “Monday will be a tough match, a very intense match, so hopefully we can keep up our form because our opponent is motivated, but we know our own level and we will strive to meet our objective.”
Defeat would leave Barcelona trailing their great rivals by four points and heavily second favourites in the race for the La Liga.
Real potential for Madrid
Barcelona may have been performing almost flawlessly of late, but so too have Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid. Fears that a flair-packed side could be reduced to a ruthlessly efficient unit have proven to be unfounded as los Blancos have out-scored every La Liga side this term aside from Barca, whose 33 goals they are the equal of.
Just as one would expect from a side marshalled by the great Portuguese coach, they have proven to be immensely mentally resilient, holding out defensively when required but also showing an appetite to gamble and really make things happen on the rare occasions they have been in tricky positions. A Pedro Leon equaliser deep in stoppage time saved them from defeat in Milan and as yet Mourinho, who was once on the staff of Bobby Robson's Barca, is unbeaten in the Bernabeu hot-seat.
Mirroring their great Catalan adversaries, Madrid have attained two terrific results over the course of the last week. A potential banana skin in the form of Athletic Bilbao was smashed clear with a very proficient 5-1 win at the Bernabeu, and then Ajax were hammered 4-0 in a match that will be best remembered for the controversial red cards of Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos.
Alonso, under scrutiny from UEFA because of the manner of his dismissal in the Netherlands, is nevertheless confident that his side have the tools to best Barca. “This team has great potential in attack, with great scoring ability. If we play well, and are strong in attack and defence, that is the recipe to win at the Camp Nou,” he explained to reporters.
“This Barcelona team are very good, and are still very good. In recent years they have won many titles, and we will fight hard to beat us because it will be crucial. The two matches, both at the Camp Nou and the return will be very important.”
Mourinho’s presence will add extra spice to the affair as it was his tactical masterplan as Inter coach last season that thwarted Barcelona’s attempts to reclaim the Champions League. Relations between the Portuguese and Guardiola are frosty, so expect fireworks on and off the field.
Real threat | Ronaldo a certain starter for Madrid
Gabriel Milito is the only first team regular missing for Barca approaching Monday's big clash, with Guardiola's side hoping to add to the 11 goals they have scored in their last two games.
Mourinho has a few more concerns approaching the match, but Ricardo Carvalho, Sami Khedira and Gonzalo Higuain have all overcome problems to be named in the squad.
Kaka and Fernando Gago miss out because of injury.