After all the hype and mud-slinging that occurred between Barcelona and Real Madrid over the course of their four recent ties (especially during their two-legged Champions League meeting), it would be fair to say that the men from Catalunya will be glad to return to the La Liga programme when they face cross-city rivals Espanyol on Sunday evening.
Manchester United’s crushing defeat of Schalke in midweek ensured that Sir Alex Ferguson’s men will face Barcelona in the Wembley final – a repeat of the 2009 showpiece in Rome, a game where Barca ran out 2-0 winners. This year’s Champions League final will be Barcelona’s seventeenth appearance in a major European final, a new record. Both clubs have a long, illustrious and sometimes intertwined history: the game at Wembley will be something of a homecoming for both sides in terms of European history. Both sides won their first European cups at the famous old twin towers, United in 1968 and Barcelona in 1992.
Domestically, Pep Guardiola’s charges currently hold an eight point lead over their Madrid rivals with just four games to play. If Real fail to claim maximum points from their match at Sevilla on Saturday then Barca could be crowned champions if they beat Espanyol the next day. Should Los Blancos win in Andalucia, the Catalans would have to wait until Wednesday’s trip to Levante on Spain’s eastern coast for another chance to secure the Primera Division title.
Looking to Sunday’s fixture however, it is often said of a local derby that the proverbial form book is thrown out of the window when two rivals meet. Earlier on in the campaign, after a 2-1 defeat in the Catalonia Cup in early December, La Blaugrana turned on the style in their trip across the city just before Christmas as they ran out 5-1 winners in the hosts’ brand new Cornella-El Prat stadium. A brace of goals from both David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez as well as a strike from Xavi Hernandez saw Barcelona take home all three points from that particular visit.
The visitors to the Camp Nou come in to the fixture with just two wins in their last seven games yet sit just four points off a Europa League qualifying spot. After four bruising encounters with Real Madrid and key players like skipper Carles Puyol returning to fitness and form, it would take a brave man to bet against Guardiola’s men taking the title and it very much remains a case of when they retain their crown rather than if.
The Catalans will be eager to erase the memory of their last league outing, at Real Sociedad, where they went down 2-1 and lost the opportunity to equal the La Liga record for number of consecutive unbeaten matches. While the case of confirming the title in black and white may have to wait a further week, a win on Saturday would mean that Barcelona would require just one point from their remaining three games to clinch the championship.