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29 February 2024

Barcelona and Real scrap for revival as Clasico looms

Photo: AFP


Real Madrid and Barcelona cannot avoid heading into next week's Clasico under pressure but each have two games to lift the mood at least, ahead of the pivotal clash at the Camp Nou.

Eight games into La Liga and both Julen Lopetegui and Ernesto Valverde are feeling the heat, forced to defend poor runs that have seen their teams manage a combined total of two wins from their last 10 games.

Madrid's slump feels the more entrenched, given they are without a goal in 360 minutes, discounting injury time, and three of their last four matches have ended in defeat.

While Barca can point to their riveting win at Wembley over Tottenham, and then a point gained in Valencia, Madrid have endured successive setbacks away to CSKA Moscow and Alaves.

They have two home games to clear the fog, and winnable ones too, against Levante in La Liga on Saturday before Viktoria Plzen visit on Tuesday in the Champions League.

A pair of victories, and just as importantly, some goals, would earn Lopetegui much-needed breathing space.

He is already being asked about his future in the same job he sacrificed Spain and the World Cup for in June.

"A coach does not think about this, we are in October," Lopetegui said after Alaves' first league win at home to Real Madrid since 1931.

"The only positive is we are close to the top of the league, the most important thing now is to recover the injured players and then calmness will come by winning games and scoring goals."

Injuries have certainly not helped. Marcelo and Isco are both expected back against Levante while Gareth Bale has been training again this week, albeit on his own. All three would provide an attacking boost.

Karim Benzema is struggling with a hamstring strain but the forward might anyway be less missed.

Seven games without a goal have seen calls grow louder for Mariano Diaz to be given a chance and Lopetegui may now be able to oblige, without the unwanted dig at the Frenchman's confidence.

Lopetegui is also right to draw comfort from the table, as Barcelona's stumbles mean his team are only two points off the top, where Sevilla are the surprise frontrunners.

Barca face table-toppers Sevilla

Barca face Sevilla on Saturday night in an unexpected duel of first and second, where the onus will be on Valverde's men to make a statement.

Sevilla have won four league games on the bounce and, in one of those, thumped Real Madrid 3-0.

They also continue a run of blockbuster ties for Barca, which has already included Spurs and Valencia, and will stretch deep into November.

After Sevilla, they play at home to Inter Milan on Wednesday and Real Madrid on Sunday. At the start of next month, they face Inter again in Italy, Atletico Madrid and Real Betis.

A win this weekend and Barcelona might feel a corner has been turned.

Level with the Catalans are Atletico Madrid, whose resurgence after a slow start is already in full swing.

"We are the annoying team, that will always come between Barcelona and Real Madrid," said Antoine Griezmann last week.

Atletico visit struggling Villarreal on Saturday, looking to make it eight games unbeaten.

The real surprise leaders of the weekend, however, could be Alaves, who were playing in Spanish football's third tier only five years ago.

They will go top, even if only temporarily, with a win away at Celta Vigo on Friday.

Fixtures (all times GMT)
Celta Vigo v Alaves (1900)
Real Madrid v Levante (1100), Valencia v Leganes (1415), Villarreal v Atletico Madrid (1630), Barcelona v Sevilla (1845)
Rayo Vallecano v Getafe (1000), Eibar v Athletic Bilbao (1415), Huesca v Espanyol (1630), Real Betis v Real Valladolid (1845)
Real Sociedad v Girona (1900)