El Clasico double-header: 5 key subplots as Real Madrid & Barcelona meet twice in 4 days
First up is the Copa del Rey semi-final second leg at Real’s Santiago Bernabeu home on Wednesday, before the pair lock horns again in La Liga at the same venue on Saturday.
The Copa del Rey tie remains in the balance at 1-1 following the first leg at the Nou Camp, where Malcolm canceled out an early opener from Real’s Lucas Vazquez.
In La Liga, Barca sit top with a seven-point cushion over Atletico Madrid and Real a further two points behind in third.
The double-header Clasico will, then, potentially have a huge say on the fates of both teams entering the business end of the season.
Ahead of the games, RT Sport looks at five key subplots that could determine how things pan out over the two meetings.
1. THE BALE ENIGMA
Despite being at the club for six years, scoring 101 goals in 220 games, and helping the club to four Champions League titles in that time, Gareth Bale remarkably remains something of a misfit at Real.
Far from courting hero status at the Bernabeu, Bale is instead seen by many as an injury-prone, peripheral figure who cannot always be relied on.
Recent comments from teammates have painted the picture of someone still not fully integrated into the team, a man who prefers taking to the golf course to socializing with teammates.
He is also yet to gain a decent enough command of Spanish to converse with his teammates, according to Brazilian full-back Marcelo.
And then there are the frustrations on the pitch. Bale has increasingly featured from the bench, coming on to score a penalty winner at the weekend against Levante, his seventh goal in 20 La Liga appearances this term.
He refused to celebrate, even shrugging off teammate Lucas Vazquez’s attempts to congratulate him.
Real boss Santiago Solari brushed off the incident, saying the Welshman “can celebrate how he likes,” while Bale is said to be in line to start at least one of the games in the Clasico double-header.
But how he responds when called upon will be key to whether he restores some belief from the Madrid faithful, or whether he takes a step further towards what could be a Bernabeu exit in the summer.
2. MESSI CARRIES BARCA BURDEN MORE THAN EVER
That Barca sit so comfortably top of La Liga mostly has to do with Lionel Messi. They are arguably more dependent on their Argentine magician now than ever before. Messi has hit 25 La Liga goals this season – of his team’s total of 65 – and has added an incredible 11 assists.
Across all competitions the Barca skipper has racked up a Europe-leading 33 goals in 32 games this season.
While strike partner Luis Suarez has 16 goals to his name and five assists, it’s the Argentine who has dug his team out of a hole time and again.
Never was that clearer than against Sevilla at the weekend when Messi bagged a hat-trick and laid on another for Suarez as Barca hauled themselves back from behind twice to win 4-2.
Suarez has blown more cold than hot this season, while big money attacking arrivals Philippe Coutinho of Brazil and French youngster Ousmane Dembele have yet to live up to expectations.
Messi, then, continues to carry the burden on his 31-year-old shoulders.
That he is in top form is a blessing for Barcelona, but equally a concern as should he have an off-day against Real, there are big questions over who – if anyone – can step up.
3. SUAREZ LACKING BITE
While Barca’s Uruguayan forward Suarez got on the scoresheet against Sevilla, it was his first goal in nine games amid a mid-season slump that has caused concern among the Catalan faithful.
He was pilloried midweek for a poor performance against Lyon in the Champions League last 16 tie in France, which extended his drought in away games in that competition to 16 games.
The fiery forward stepped up the last time Barcelona met Real in October, netting a hat-trick in the absence of an injured Messi as the Catalans hammered their rivals 5-1 at the Nou Camp, precipitating the sacking of Real boss Julen Lopetegui.Also on rt.com Barcelona 5-1 Real Madrid: Suarez hat-trick piles pressure on beleaguered Lopetegui
But since that high point Barcelona have become more and more reliant on Messi. Suarez has been a wonderful servant in his time at the club, but Barcelona will need him to get back to his best to stand any chance of claiming a domestic double and potential European silverware.
Tormenting Real like he did last time out would be a good start for Barca’s Uruguayan number 9 to regain some of his old bite.
4. VINICIUS THE REAL DEAL
One bright spot amid a stuttering season for Real has been the emergence of 18-year-old Brazilian starlet Vinicius Junior.
Tipped as one for the future when he arrived in the summer, the Brazilian has become an integral part of the here and now for Real as they struggle with the question of life after Cristiano Ronaldo.
Vinicius put in an impressive performance against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey first leg at the start of February, part of his 25 appearances for the Real senior team, 16 of which have been as among the starting 11.
He’s scored four goals and laid on 12 assists in that time – even comparing favorably to the precocious Messi in his debut season at Barca.
Vinicius has even said ahead of the upcoming Clasico double that while he greatly admires Messi, the Real team are afraid of no one.
The left winger is taking more and more responsibility on his slender young shoulders, but has so far been at ease with it, displaying a maturity beyond his years.
His latest rites of passage to potential Real greatness will come on Wednesday and Saturday – if he composes himself as he has done so far, his team will be in with a big chance of making the Copa del Rey final and cutting the gap at the top of La Liga.
5. VAR FARCE
Real Madrid stood accused of benefitting from a huge misjudgment involving the video assistant referee (VAR) in the game against Levante, twice being awarded penalties after consultation with the system.
The second of those, converted by Gareth Bale, came after Casemiro was adjudged to have been fouled by Doukoure despite the Brazilian appearing to dive.
Levante themselves were denied two spot-kicks – for a Dani Carvajal foul and a Raphael Varane handball – neither of which even went to VAR for consideration.
That has fueled social media rumblings that the club from the capital are benefitting from the system at the expense of others.
Barca boss Ernesto Valverde has said that his team is “not panicking” about the system, and that they are merely focused on winning Wednesday’s game.
But it would be a massive shame for such a crunch clash as a Clasico to be decided through such controversial means, which given recent weeks is an unwanted possibility.
EL CLASICO DOUBLE BILL - WHAT TIME IS IT AND WHERE?
What: Real Madrid vs Barcelona, Copa del Rey semi-final, second leg (score 1-1 aggregate)
Where: Santiago Bernabeu
When: Wednesday, February 27, Kick-off: 20:00 GMT
What: Real Madrid vs Barcelona, La Liga matchday 26
Where: Santiago Bernabeu
When: Saturday, March 2, 19:45 GMT