The Clasico should be a celebration of football and of two of the world’s truly elite teams, but that will not be the case on Saturday. Instead, it may be an exhibition demonstrating how today’s empires become tomorrow’s ashes.
The Champions League mini-tournament highlighted the power shift last season, with Manchester City swatting Real Madrid aside in the last 16 and Bayern Munich pulverising Barcelona in the quarter-finals.
Now, when Barcelona host Real Madrid at Camp Nou, some onlookers will be expecting to rubberneck a car crash than savour an ode to the beautiful game.
Atletico Madrid and Sevilla will be particularly interested, because if they get their own houses in order, this season could prove their best chance to win La Liga since Diego Simeone’s side took the title in 2014.
Barcelona come into the game looking the better side but that says little. Their 1-0 defeat by Getafe last weekend was preceded by a 1-1 draw with Sevilla, portraying how they have not yet worked out what they are doing in attack.
Ronald Koeman claimed the subsequent 5-1 win over Ferencvaros in the Champions League was a perfect riposte to those claims.
"When you win a game, get three points and score five goals, you can be happy,” said Koeman. "If we are capable of playing the whole game at the same intensity and, above all, with that high rhythm with the ball, we are a really good team.”
However, Blaugrana supporters can be forgiven for taking that with a pinch of salt given the level of the opponents, whom, it must be said, had the Catalans on the back foot for half an hour.
Lionel Messi still failed to score from open play; the Argentine has two goals in five games for Barcelona, both from the penalty spot. He doesn’t have a clear position in this Koeman side and it is becoming harder to imagine him thriving in the central role he currently occupies.
That’s partly because he no longer has the pace he boasted while serving as a 'false nine' under Pep Guardiola, but also due to the fact that Philippe Coutinho is being deployed just behind him, as the No.10, occupying similar space.
Messi, the club’s all-time top goalscorer and possibly the best player who has ever lived, did not want to stay this season and while it would be churlish to claim Barcelona would be better off without him, certainly their tactical set up would be simpler had he left.
Coutinho has impressed since returning from Bayern Munich, but, let’s be honest, he couldn’t have played much worse than he did before being shipped off on loan. The Brazilian, Barcelona’s record signing, is not always on the same wavelength as his team-mates and may find himself marked and muscled out of the Clasico by his compatriot Casemiro.
Antoine Griezmann, who cost €120 million ($143m), hasn’t found a home in the side either, with the Frenchman so unhappy with his positioning on the right that he publicly aired his grievances while on international duty last week.
Koeman responded by playing the French forward upfront against Getafe but that didn’t go well either, with Griezmann blazing the one clear chance he had over the bar.
He could find himself on the bench in the Clasico, given Trincao’s bright display against Ferencvaros. It wasn’t even that the Portuguese wide man was that impressive, simply that he wanted to run at the defence and was willing to go outside his man instead of always cutting in.
Ousmane Dembele had an exciting cameo too, scoring and adding an assist, but getting too excited about the Frenchman is prohibited in Catalunya, after 101 false starts since arriving from Borussia Dortmund in 2017.
So far this season, Barcelona have found themselves relying on 17-year-old Ansu Fati, a thrilling forward destined for greatness.
And yet, for him to be the star man exposes the precarious nature of this season’s Barcelona, at least at this early juncture. A teenager can drop in and out of form quicker than they cycle through social media platforms on their phone.
Remember, this is the side in better shape. Madrid are at an even lower ebb, not least because they have been ravished by injuries. Martin Odegaard was their big summer ‘signing’ but the Norwegian, who spent last season on loan at Real Sociedad, is out for up to a month.
Both right-backs Dani Carvajal and Alvaro Odriozola are unavailable, as is Eden Hazard, which by now should go without saying. Most worryingly of all, Madrid’s captain Sergio Ramos is a doubt, although if there is any chance he can play, expect him to force his way onto the pitch.
If Barcelona have struggled for goals, Madrid can only dream of them.
Vinicius Junior has netted three of Madrid’s last five and he is still an erratic finisher at best. Luka Modric grabbed another, with a one-off long-distance missile, while Karim Benzema netted on the break in stoppage time against a stretched Levante.
There appears to be no recipe for the players to follow from Zinedine Zidane, with Hazard’s absence seemingly the only excuse. It didn’t matter during last season’s run-in, when Madrid ground down games to win by one-goal scorelines.
That’s all well and good when you have a small, limited number of matches with a title in sight at the end of them. But a team can’t play like that all season long (unless managed by Simeone).
Trailing 3-0 at half-time in a dismal performance, the second half fight-back was merely putting lipstick on a pig.
“Worse every day,” complained Marca on their front page. “Champions League ridicule,” chortled Diario Sport.
What made it worse was that they did not correct their errors from the previous match, which Cadiz won 1-0 at the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium, having shredded Madrid’s back-line in the first half relentlessly.
“I see myself capable of fixing this, that's what I'm going to try,” said Zidane, one defeat away from a full-blown crisis. “And the players are going to try, too. We are going to look for the solution and we're going to find it.”
Madrid supporters have to hope that happens before the team head into enemy territory on Saturday.