Today, for the first time in over a decade, neither Cristiano Ronaldo nor Lionel Messi will be a part of El Clasico. Ronaldo of course has moved on to Juventus, while Messi is out for at least a month with a fractured arm. But Real Madrid versus Barcelona was the biggest club football fixture in the world before Ronaldo and Messi, and it will remain so long after they’ve hung up their professional boots.
The pedigree of the fixture aside, there is lot of stake for both club. Entering Game Week 10 at seventh in the league, four points behind league leaders Barcelona, a defeat at Nou Camp would mean Madrid going seven points behind their archrivals with little over a quarter of the league season played out.
On the flip side, if Madrid even play out a draw, they stay within four points of Barcelona, who after gaining only one point will almost certainly be overtaken at the top of the league. An away win for Madrid, by far the unlikeliest outcome of the three, would bring them well and truly back into the mix at the top of La Liga.
However, to gauge just how much Real Madrid are missing Ronaldo all we need to do is look at their goal-scoring stats this season. Real Madrid’s 2-1 loss at home against Levante last weekend was the first time in almost a month that they managed to score a goal. The 481 minutes that they spent goalless is a club record.
The 2-1 win midweek in the Champions League against Viktoria Plzen might’ve put Real Madrid back on winning ways, but their last La Liga win came on September 22, in the 1-0 win over Espanyol. Since then they’ve lost 3-0 to Sevilla, drawn 0-0 at home against Atletico, lost 1-0 away to CSKA Moscow in the Champions League and lost to Alaves and Levante.
Interestingly, Real have played four of the current top five in the league, with the trip to Nou Camp ticking all five. Following the Barcelona clash, Real Madrid’s next assignment in the league would be at home to Valladolid which is currently sixth in the table. Having played Levante (currently eighth) already, but next week Madrid would’ve played each of the team that occupy the top eight slots going into Game Week 10.
Of course, this early in the season the stats work both ways. The fact that these sides have beaten Real Madrid is one of the reasons why they have sufficient points to occupy the top slots in a league where the top 11 are just separated by eight points.
Should Real lose today Julen Lopetegui is all but certain to get the sack, with his replacements having been speculated over for a while.
Even so, despite the fact that Barcelona are top of the league, things are far from perfect at the Nou Camp. Having opened up the league season with four wins, against Alaves, Real Valladolid, Huesca and Real Sociedad, where they scored 14 goals and conceded just the one, Barcelona then couldn’t win any of the next four games. However, the 4-2 at home against Sevilla last weekend has put them back to winning ways.
However, in addition to Messi Barca would be without Samuel Umtiti as well, who is a long term absentee owing to his knee injury. Among the selection questions for Ernesto Valverde will be whether or not he goes with Ousmane Dembele in the front three alongside Phillipe Coutinho and Luis Suarez, or if he sticks to Rafinha.
Real Madrid have injury question marks of their own going into the weekend as they await the verdict on Marcelo, who got a knock midweek. If the Brazilian misses out then neither of the two first choice Madrid full-backs would be in the game, with Dani Carvajal also out.
Even so, for Lopetegui, who might well be managing Real for the very last time tonight, the real question is does he go out all guns blazing and play Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Isco and Marco Asensio? If you’re going to try to outscore Barcelona, the odds are significantly better when Messi isn’t playing.
Even without Messi, Barcelona should have more on paper for Real Madrid tonight. On current form, Barca should have no troubles overturning the Madrid challenge at home, which is certain to send Lopetegui, with Antonio Conte the favourite to step in.
But then again it is El Clasico, and quite often form books and other papers are thrown out of the window. There clearly is more at stake for Real Madrid today as they enter the contest as the underdogs.
Will they capitalise on Messi’s absence? Do the players really want to save Lopetegui’s job? We’ll find out tonight.