Real Madrid look to widen lead over Barcelona in El Clasico

Real Madrid go into Saturday’s first Liga Clasico of 2011-12 with a three-point lead and a game in hand over Barcelona. A win at the Bernabeu would double their advantage and cement the most dominant position Los Blancos have held since Pep Guardiola took charge of their rivals.

Interestingly, there is a stark contrast between the manner in which Madrid have destroyed a succession of opponents in the current campaign and the cautious, ultimately self-destructive tactics that marred last season’s Champions League encounters with Barca so badly. Jose Mourinho must decide which approach is most likely to deliver success this time around.

Mourinho opted to attack and press Barca in the season’s curtain raiser, a two-legged Spanish Super Cup Clasico, from which the Blaugrana emerged with a 5-4 aggregate win, with some moments of Lionel Messi magic ultimately proving the difference over two legs. It remains to be seen whether the Portuguese will stick with the same philosophy to outwit Guardiola’s men or revert to a conservative mindset.

Barca won two of last season’s five Clasicos, Madrid one (the final of the Copa del Rey), and there were two draws. Barca memorably dismantled Madrid 5-0 at Camp Nou in La Liga, but the Champions League semi-final at the Bernabeu hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Two late goals from Messi won for Barca a game that, with 46 fouls committed, was ruined as a spectacle by both sides’ niggly, confrontational approach, both to each other and the referee.

Looking forward to this weekend’s meeting in Madrid, Barca midfielder Xavi Hernandez insisted the defensive approach adopted by Los Blancos and the subsequent friction created in last season’s encounters had been forgotten: “On Saturday, each player will be fighting for his team to win. It is natural that there is sometimes tension on the pitch, but I hope that at end of the game the only talk is about football, not about refereeing decisions and players kicking each other.”

With their sides assured of qualification for the Last 16 of the Champions League, both Coaches elected to rest players for their final group stage matches ahead of El Clasico, but with no detrimental effect on results. Guardiola’s tyros overcame BATE Borisov 4-0 on Tuesday while Real Madrid defeated Ajax 3-0 in Amsterdam last night, with Mourinho refusing to be drawn on El Clasico: “It is not in our heads yet. I can only say that some players starting against Ajax will also play against Barcelona, but I can’t say how many.”

The winner of the first Clasico has gone on to win La Liga in each of the last seven seasons but, despite Real’s advantage in the table, the outcome of this weekend’s clash is difficult to call. Recent form suggests a goalless draw is unlikely as the last five Clasicos at the Bernabeu have yielded 18 goals, an average of 3.6 per game. In a Marca survey, 66% of fans questioned were backing Mourinho’s team to win, against 34% for Barca.

Madrid’s win against Ajax extended their winning sequence to 15 games and, with 72 goals in 22 matches in all competitions, many will consider them favourites. Barca have struggled away from home, losing to Getafe and winning only twice, with unconvincing 1-0 successes at Sporting Gijon and Granada. However, their 5-0 demolition of an over-achieving Levante side last weekend suggested they might be back to somewhere close to their best.

Graphic: Cristiano Ronaldo versus Lionel Messi head-to-head record going into El Clasico, courtesy of Betclic.com, online gaming operator. For all the best football odds around Europe visit Betclic.com.

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