Real Madrid v Barcelona preview
A Real Madrid win over Barcelona at the Bernabeu on Saturday will throw the title race wide open.
By Richard Bailey
Last Updated: 02/05/09 10:58pm
A Real Madrid win over their fiercest rivals Barcelona at the Bernabeu on Saturday in 'El Clasico' promises to throw the title race wide open.
The Catalans travel to the capital four points ahead of Real with five games to play but that lead could be whittled down to a single point if Madrid get their way.
A close title race seemed the last thing anybody expected after the two teams clashed at Camp Nou earlier in the season in December.
After a disappointing start to the campaign Real manager Bernd Schuster threw in the towel before a ball was kicked after announcing that his side could not win in Catalunya before adding it was their year.
The comments caused uproar among Madridistas and the board duly relieved the German of his responsibilities replacing him with ex-Tottenham boss Juande Ramos.
After Barca had dismantled their rivals 2-0, to open up a 12 point gap between the two teams, many began to think that Schuster had been right all along but fast forward four-and-a-half months and that dismal night in Barcelona remains Real's last defeat in the league.
Ramos has rebuilt his reputation and dragged a club that had appeared in the midst of chaos to pick up 52 points from a possible 54 to take them back towards the top of La Liga.
The run has given the champions renewed confidence, none more so than captain Raul - he has netted 15 league goals this term - who feels his side go into the game as favourites despite admitting that the current Barca side are one of the best ever.
"We are playing in the Bernabeu and Madrid have to be the favourites," he told AS.
"Either team are capable of winning, of course, but the atmosphere and the fans will help us. They are playing for a lot but I think we have even more to play for.
"A team is judged on trophies but this is one of the best teams in their history. They have some outstanding players."
Meanwhile despite seeing their lead at the top cut over the past few months Barca are not exactly playing badly following a run of 14 wins in 17 games since the Madrid win.
One of the things that could count against the Catalans is their gruelling fixture schedule with El Clasico falling in between their two UEFA Champions League semi-final ties with Chelsea.
Barca travel to Stamford Bridge on Wednesday with their players still feeling the effects of a rough and tumble first leg in Spain on Tuesday with the tie delicately poised at 0-0.
Therefore it remains to be seen whether Guardiola will protect his top stars ahead of the return leg and give the Champions League higher priority over the league.
However many of Barca's leading lights will be out for revenge after last season's humiliating 4-1 reverse at the Bernabeu when the visitors had to perform a 'pasillo' in recognition of Real securing the league title with three games to go.
Arjen Robben has made a miraculous recovery from a calf injury which threatened to keep him out of the clash and Ramos has confirmed that he will start on the right-wing.
Guti will miss out after spraining his ankle in training while Wesley Sneijder is ruled out with a thigh strain. Gabriel Heinze has shrugged off a knee injury to play his part but Pepe is definitely out as he sits out through his hefty suspension.
Meanwhile Guardiola could look to freshen up his squad with the Chelsea game in mind but defender Rafael Marquez definitely out after his knee buckled against the Blues in midweek.
The Mexican is out for the season and is not expected back for between eight and 10 weeks. Fellow defenders Martin Caceres and Gabriel Milito will also miss out so Carles Puyol is set to start especially since he is suspended for the return leg against Chelsea.
Striker Thierry Henry is doubtful to play from the start after complaining of a sore neck after suffering a hard knock to the head in midweek so Guardiola is thought to be toying with the idea of pushing Andres Iniesta further forward.