Pessimism surrounds 'Clasico' after European disappointments

By Richard Martin
FILE PHOTO: La Liga Santander - Real Madrid v FC Barcelona

By Richard Martin

MADRID (Reuters) - Sunday's 'Clasico' between Real Madrid and Barcelona may have huge ramifications on La Liga's title race but poor showings in the Champions League mean the fixture is lacking its usual billing as a battle between the two best teams in the world.

Real Madrid lost 2-1 at home to Manchester City in their last-16 first leg while Barcelona drew 1-1 at Napoli, a result which masked a shaky performance and seemed to confirm Lionel Messi's fears that they are not good enough to win the trophy.

Champions Barca take a two-point lead into the clash at the Santiago Bernabeu after cashing in on a wobble from Zinedine Zidane's side, who drew 2-2 with Celta Vigo and lost to Levante in their last two league fixtures.

"This Clasico is like a race between two injured people, the reality is the two teams are doing very badly," said former Real Madrid and Argentina forward Jorge Valdano.

"Barcelona's recovery owes far more to Real's decline than their own merits. Real's slip ups have strengthened Barca, who put in an abysmal performance against Napoli."

Both sides head into the game with their own selection issues, with Madrid light on forwards due to the absence of Marco Asensio, Eden Hazard and Rodrygo.

Barca, meanwhile, need to fill holes all over the pitch, with Jordi Alba, Sergi Roberto, Ousmane Dembele and Luis Suarez all injured and Gerard Pique facing a battle to be fit.

Despite having the most expensive wage bill in world sport, coach Quique Setien was forced to fill his bench against Napoli with three reserve team players, and dressing room heavyweights are not hiding their anger at the club's hierarchy.

"We have a short squad but those in charge knew that," said Ivan Rakitic, echoing a sense of discontent with Barcelona's board following recent outspoken comments from Messi.

Yet even with their many problems, Barca seem to have slightly more momentum heading into Sunday's game at the Bernabeu, where they have won on their last four league visits.

At the very least, they can rely on Messi, who has scored four goals and has four assists in his last four league games.

"He is one of the best players of all time, I have so much respect for him but I hope on Sunday he doesn't have a good day as it would mean we will have done a good job," Real captain Sergio Ramos told La Liga's website.

"It will be a very competitive game because of what stage we are at in the season. The gap between us is minimal, the result could be decisive and I hope we can make a real statement by winning."


(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Toby Davis)