Barcelona can virtually clinch LaLiga title in decisive El Clasico

Xavi Hernandez and his Barcelona team can take a decisive step toward winning LaLiga on Sunday as a Clasico victory over Real Madrid would send it 12 points clear of last year's champion. The Catalan club has not won the Spanish title since Ernesto Valverde was at the helm in 2019 and expanding the gap on its bitter rival in second would virtually clinch it.

Madrid won the first LaLiga Clasico 3-1 in October, but Xavi's team has vastly improved since then. The manager is desperate to win the league title to validate the team's growth, while for the club it would represent a swift return on its outlay last summer.

Despite its financial crisis, Barcelona signed Robert Lewandowski, Jules Kounde, Raphinha and other players by selling off future television rights in a move some blasted for gambling with the club's future. Champions League group-stage elimination, followed by a Europa League knockout by Manchester United, confirmed Barcelona still has a long way to go, but the club has made significant progress.

Beating Real Madrid 3-1 in the Spanish Super Cup final in January in Saudi Arabia earned Xavi his first trophy as coach, and the performance was dominant. By contrast, when the teams met earlier this month in the Copa del Rey semifinal first leg, Madrid played better, but Barcelona came away with a 1-0 win.

How the Catalans approach this Clasico is a key issue for Xavi to decide. Fans at Camp Nou may not react well to a similarly defensive performance and will expect Barcelona to take the initiative more. That will be significantly easier if midfield maestro Pedri is fit. Without the Canary Islander, already essential for club and country at 20 years old, Barcelona seems virtually incapable of playing possession soccer.

Pedri has missed six games across all competitions with a thigh injury and in his absence, when Barcelona has won, it has been because of its rock-solid defense.

Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior failed to score at the Santiago Bernabeu in the Copa Clasico and the latter has been well-defended by Ronald Araujo in recent battles with Barcelona. Xavi tends to select the Uruguayan center back at right back against Madrid so he can face off against the Brazilian winger. Barcelona has found that by shutting down Vinicius, Madrid's attack is significantly less dangerous.

"For me he is the best in the world," Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti said after the Champions League win over Liverpool in midweek, backing Vinicius to the hilt.

However, Madrid may need to prove that it has other routes to scoring goals if Vinicius is kept quiet. The winger set up Benzema as Los Blancos beat Liverpool 1-0 on Wednesday to reach the Champions League quarterfinals, 6-2 on aggregate. It was a strong display that showed that the reigning Spanish and European champion can produce the goods when it truly matters to them. The opportunity to cut Barcelona's La Liga advantage to six points could re-ignite the title race, but the record 14-time European champion's main goal is retaining that trophy.

"We have to continue with this rhythm, playing like we've played today, and I hope it's like that in the Clasico, we have to win," Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois said after beating Liverpool.

Benzema is expected to be fit after taking a blow to the shin against the Reds, but Barcelona is still missing his compatriot Ousmane Dembele. To upset the Catalans, Madrid has to manage something only one other LaLiga team has accomplished all season — scoring against the hosts at Camp Nou. Joselu netted a penalty for Espanyol in December and no player has scored from open play in the top-flight this season at Barcelona's stadium.

Player to watch: Sergi Darder 

Espanyol midfielder Sergi Darder has pulled the strings for his team this season and is key to its bid to avoid relegation. His team faces Celta Vigo on Saturday at home and with Espanyol a point above the relegation zone, it is a must-win game.

Friday: Real Valladolid vs Athletic Bilbao
Saturday: Almeria vs Cadiz, Rayo Vallecano vs Girona, Espanyol vs Celta Vigo, Atletico Madrid vs Valencia
Sunday: Real Betis vs Real Mallorca, Osasuna vs Villarreal, Real Sociedad vs Elche, Getafe vs Sevilla, Barcelona vs Real Madrid


© Agence France-Presse

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