Pressing questions that will determine Sunday’s Clasico

We’re little more than 24 hours away from a Clasico that stands to have considerable implications on this season’s LaLiga title race. Barcelona lead Real Madrid by nine points in the table and have won the past two meetings between the sides, and a third straight victory would all but wrap up the league title for the Catalan club.

On the back of an impressive Champions League last-16 win over Liverpool, though, there’s every reason to suggest that Madrid are beginning to hit their stride at the campaign’s inflection point. They’re Spain‘s defending domestic champions and won the October meeting between the clubs in convincing fashion.

What should you expect when the two famous rivals line up on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+)? ESPN’s Barcelona and Madrid correspondents Sam Marsden and Alex Kirkland lay out the biggest storylines ahead of the match and make their predictions.

How relevant is the past Clasico, and how can Madrid change the outcome?

Barcelona’s 1-0 win at the Santiago Bernabeu in the Copa del Rey semifinal first leg on March 2 wasn’t a complete fluke — although their goal, Franck Kessie‘s shot hitting the net via Thibaut Courtois‘ save and Eder Militao’s unwitting deflection, definitely was — but it was unusual. Madrid “dominated” the game, in the words of Courtois. Barcelona had a historically low 35.4% possession, forced to sit back and defend deep. Madrid had 13 shots to Barca’s four. The difference in xG, or expected goals, was minimal: 0.57 for Madrid and 0.63 for Barca. Madrid’s problem was the final ball and creating high-quality chances. None of their shots were on target.

Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
Barca vs. Madrid: Sunday at 3 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+

For coach Carlo Ancelotti, the idea for Sunday’s LaLiga Clasico — and the return leg in the Copa on April 5 — is simple: play the same way, while being more clinical in the final third.

“We simply have to repeat this game in Barcelona,” he said after the Copa game. “Defensively, with a high press, this was one of Madrid’s best games. If we can play with this intensity, we’ll have more chances.”

Expect Madrid to stick with that high press, with the midfield — whether it’s Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Federico Valverde or Eduardo Camavinga — pushing up to disrupt Barca’s passing. It will be down to Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior to be more incisive in attack. Benzema had just one shot in that last meeting and Vinicius was restricted to two, unable to break away from the attentions of Ronald Araujo.

Of course, Barcelona will also look to improve on that Copa display. It’s hard to imagine Xavi’s team having so little of the ball at Camp Nou. — Kirkland

Are the two goalkeepers the most important players here? If so, what does that say about the state of the Clasico?

The Clasicos of the past 15 years have largely been defined by the goal scorers and the flair players. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Modric and Andres Iniesta. However, ask supporters of either of the two clubs who are currently their most important players and Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Courtois would likely rank near the top. It suggests that the quality of this fixture has perhaps dipped in recent years, but should take nothing away from the two goalkeepers.

German stopper Ter Stegen is having arguably his best season since he joined Barca nine years ago. Through 25 LaLiga games, he has conceded just eight goals, keeping 19 clean sheets, both league highs for this stage of the campaign. Those eight goals conceded have come from an xGA (expected goals against) of 20.56. He has made 51 saves, some of them spectacular, including heroic performances in several 1-0 wins. Keeping goals out is only part of his job, mind. He is also the first line of Barca’s attack and has completed 82.5% of his 699 attempted passes in LaLiga. No goalkeeper in the league has attempted more or has a higher success rate.

On paper, Courtois’ statistics don’t compare this season, but his value to Madrid is similar. In the big moments, he is there. Just ask Liverpool. He kept them out again on Wednesday as Madrid progressed in Europe, and he was the player of the match in last season’s Champions League final between the same two sides. Recent highlights include a fine save against Real Valladolid at 0-0 as Madrid went on to claim three points and a massive stop from Borja Iglesias in the recent goalless draw against Real Betis. — Marsden

Why do Madrid beat all comers in the Champions League but often struggle against Barca?

While Madrid have beaten some of Europe’s best in the past year — dispatching Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, Manchester City in heroic fashion on their way to winning the Champions League — Barcelona have proved a tougher test. Before Barca’s backs-to-the-wall 1-0 win in the Copa, there was their convincing 3-1 victory in the Spanish Supercopa final on Jan. 15. Yes, Madrid came out on top in LaLiga, with a comfortable 3-1 win on Oct. 16, but before that, Barca put together one of the most convincing performances by an away team at Bernabeu in years last season, beating Madrid 4-0 on March 20.

Look back a little further and Madrid’s record is considerably better, though. They went six Clasicos without a defeat until that 4-0 drubbing, including four consecutive wins in LaLiga in 2020 and 2021, for the first time since the 1960s. The arrival of Xavi at Camp Nou, and Barca’s subsequent improvement — at least domestically — has seen the fixture become unpredictable once more. The comparison with last season’s Champions League win is also somewhat misleading. Those epic comebacks were only necessary because of just how bad Madrid were in their 1-0 first-leg loss to PSG, and for much of the 3-2 home and 4-3 away defeats to Chelsea and Manchester City.

In summary: this Real Madrid team is capable of greatness, and of being very average, and we’ve seen plenty of both in Clasicos, and in Europe, in recent seasons. — Kirkland

How is the Negreira case hanging over this game and affecting the relationship between these two clubs?

Barcelona’s payments to the former vice president of the refereeing committee in Spain are testing the bond developed between the two Clasico rivals in recent seasons. They are partners in the European Super League project and were among the only teams to reject LaLiga’s deal with private equity firm CVC for an instant cash boost in exchange for a future percentage of their television money. Presidents Joan Laporta and Florentino Perez are both able to see that, even if they always want to win, both teams benefit if the other remains strong.

Madrid were the only LaLiga side not to condemn the revelation of Barca’s payments to ex-referee Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira in a letter released by Spanish clubs two weeks ago. Last weekend, though, following a decision from prosecutors to seek corruption charges against Barca, Madrid decided to join the complaint. Reports suggest Barca expected that to happen because of the mounting fan pressure on Perez to act, but that they are also disappointed — with TV3 suggesting Laporta will even cancel Sunday’s traditional pre-game directors’ lunch as a consequence.

Barca continue to state their innocence against the allegations, with Laporta saying they never “bought referees or influence.” For many, though, their image is already stained despite there being no judgement yet. And what happens on the pitch is even being viewed through the prism of the case. Fans of opposition teams, meanwhile, are throwing fake bank notes during Barca games and chanting for them to be relegated.

“It was sad to see,” Xavi said following such incidents during the win over Athletic Club last weekend. “Barca are being judged before time, which is not good for society.” — Marsden

Real Madrid player to watch

Vinicius. His lost battle with Araujo was the story of the last Clasico. But Vinicius is on form, scoring and starring in Madrid’s LaLiga win over Espanyol last weekend, and will be determined to come out on top this time. — Kirkland

Barcelona player to watch

Raphinha. Still settling following a summer switch from Leeds United, he has been Barca’s standout attacker in 2023 since Ousmane Dembele got injured. He scored the winner in 1-0 victories in each of Barca’s past two LaLiga matches. In total, he now has five goals in his past 10 games and eight in 20 after scoring just once in his first 17 appearances. — Marsden

Predicted Real Madrid starting XI

Courtois; Dani Carvajal, Militao, Nacho, Ferland Mendy; Eduardo Camavinga, Kroos, Modric, Valverde; Vinicius, Benzema. — Kirkland

Predicted Barcelona starting XI

Ter Stegen; Araujo, Jules Kounde, Andreas Christensen, Alejandro Balde; Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong, Kessie, Gavi; Raphinha, Robert Lewandowski. — Marsden

Score predictions

Barcelona 1-2 Real Madrid: A Madrid win might not put them right back in the title race, but a six-point gap would ensure leaders Barca can’t take it easy between now and the end of the season. — Kirkland

Barcelona 1-1 Real Madrid: A draw is good enough for Barca to maintain their nine-point lead at the top, while Madrid might settle for a point and reserve their efforts for upcoming challenges in the Copa del Rey and Champions League. — Marsden

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