Injured Benzema To Miss Clasico And France Friendlies

 In this file photo taken on March 5, 2022 Real Madrid's French forward Karim Benzema reacts during the Spanish league football match between Real Madrid CF and Real Sociedad at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid. PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP
In this file photo taken on March 5, 2022 Real Madrid’s French forward Karim Benzema reacts during the Spanish league football match between Real Madrid CF and Real Sociedad at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid. PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP

 

Real Madrid’s top scorer Karim Benzema will miss the Clasico against Barcelona and the upcoming France internationals with a calf injury, coach Carlo Ancelotti said on Saturday. 

Real enter the weekend 10 points clear at the top of La Liga. They are 15 points ahead of third-place Barcelona, who they host on Sunday evening.

Benzema was included in the France squad announced on Thursday by Didier Deschamps for friendlies against Ivory Coast on March 25 and South Africa on March 29.

“We never take risks with him,” said Ancelotti. “He still has some pain. It’s a small injury, but it prevents him from training and playing,”

READ ALSO: Saka Sends Arsenal Closer To Champions League Return

The international break allows Benzema more time to recover.

“We will have two weeks to prepare him for the end of the season, where he will be very important, as always. He’s always come back from little glitches like this, and he’s always made a difference.”

Benzema scored twice on Monday in Mallorca to take his career total to 413 goals, breaking a tie with Thierry Henry at the top of the all-time list of French scorers.

Benzema limped off in the 87th minute visibly bothered by a pain in the left calf, leaving his teammates to finish the game with 10 men.

He is by some distance the top scorer in La Liga with 22 goals. Team-mate Vinicius Junior is tied for second on 14.

Ancelotti has plenty of options. Vinicius, Rodrygo and Marco Asensio have played most this season, but the coach could also recall Mariano Diaz, Luka Jovic, Eden Hazard or Gareth Bale.

“Everything is decided, but I will not tell you anything,” Ancelotti said.

“We want to be at our best and it’ll be a game that involves a lot of different elements. We can’t go thinking that doing just one thing well will be enough to win the game. We’re going to have to produce a strong all-round performance,” he said.

 

AFP

El Clasico: Police Arrest 10 Over Catalan Protest Outside Camp Nou

A protester with an umbrella tries to enter the Camp Nou stadium during a protest called by Catalan separatist movement Democratic Tsunami outside the stadium in Barcelona on December 18, 2019, during the “El Clasico” Spanish League football match between Barcelona FC and Real Madrid CF.  Pau Barrena / AFP

 

Ten people were arrested and over 60 injured in clashes between Catalan separatists and police outside of Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium on Wednesday night as Barcelona and Real Madrid faced off, local authorities said Thursday.

Masked protesters set bins on fire and threw rocks and glass bottles at police who responded with foam bullets and baton charges in a street near the stadium during the first “Clasico” match of the season between the two arch-rivals.

Police detained 10 people during the clashes for an affront to authority and causing public disorder, said a spokesman for Catalonia’s regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra.

Emergency services said it treated 64 people for light injuries, including 39 police officers.

But the police spokesman said a total of 56 officers were injured, including two with broken bones.

Some 3,000 police officers and private security agents had been deployed for the game amid calls for Catalan separatists to protest outside the stadium during the fixture.

The clashes outside the Camp Nou were the first violent incidents in Catalonia since October when Spain’s Supreme Court jailed nine Catalan separatist leaders over their role in a failed 2017 bid for independence, triggering days of protests that sometimes ended in clashes with police.

The original fixture in October had to be postponed due to the violent demonstrations across the wealthy northeastern region.

Inside the stadium, the match passed largely undisturbed, save for a brief pause early in the second half as dozens of yellow beach balls were thrown onto the field and had to be removed by stewards.

Thousands of fans also held up blue banners with the words ‘Spain, sit and talk’ which were given to supporters outside the grounds by Democratic Tsunami, the Catalan independence group that called the demonstration.

Four hours before kick-off, thousands had gathered at the four corners of the stadium to hold the same blue banners and wave Catalan flags, while some blocked traffic too. The match ended in a 0-0 draw.

AFP

Bale Starts For Real Madrid Against Barcelona

Real Madrid’s Welsh forward Gareth Bale is set to start in El Clasico (File).
JOSE JORDAN / AFP

 

Gareth Bale was handed a surprise start by Zinedine Zidane for Real Madrid’s politically charged La Liga meeting with Barcelona on Wednesday.

Bale has been out of the team for Real’s previous three games, with his last selection in the starting line-up coming against Alaves on November 30.

The fixture had to be postponed in October due to violent demonstrations and there are renewed fears of unrest relating to Catalan independence breaking out around Camp Nou.

After recovering from a thigh injury, the Welshman followed up one substitute appearance with a start at Camp Nou, where the winner will go top of the table.

Real and Barca are level on points, with the Catalans ahead on goal difference.

AFP

Protestors Block Traffic Ahead Of Politically Charged Clasico

 

Demonstrators take part in a protest called by Catalan separatist movement Democratic Tsunami outside the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on December 18, 2019, prior to the “El Clasico” Spanish League football match between Barcelona FC and Real Madrid CF. Tension in Spain’s north-east region boiled over in October when demonstrations and riots caused the original La Liga fixture between Barcelona and Real Madrid

 

Hundreds of protestors blocked traffic outside Camp Nou on Wednesday as Barcelona and Real Madrid prepared to play a Clasico overshadowed by calls for Catalan independence. 

Supporters of Democratic Tsunami, the protest group advocating Catalan self-determination, gathered at the four corners of the stadium from 1500 GMT, four hours before kick-off.

Many held Catalan flags and blue banners that carried the group’s slogan – ‘Spain, sit and talk’ – as well as the words ‘Freedom, rights, self-determination’.

“We must take advantage of the magnitude of this match so the world can see our situation from Europe and around the world,” said Antoni Rabull, a 73-year-old retiree.

There was a visible police presence outside the stadium but there was little sign of trouble as protestors stayed true to Democratic Tsunami’s pledge to carry out its demonstrations peacefully.

“To perform the action of Democratic Tsunami it is essential that the game can be played and the fans with tickets can enter the stadium,” read a message posted by the group’s official Twitter account.

Police were also stationed outside the nearby Hotel Princesa Sofia, with players, coaching staff and referees instructed to gather there and then leave together for the match two hours before kick-off.

Around 3,000 security personnel will be posted around the stadium after renewed fears of unrest. The original fixture in October had to be postponed due to violent demonstrations breaking out across Catalonia.

“We know we are living in a complex social and political situation but I am convinced that it is compatible with playing a football match,” said the club’s president Josep Maria Bartomeu last week.

– ‘Spain, sit and talk’ –

Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia claimed there were plans to throw inflatable balls onto the pitch to denounce the use of rubber bullets by police during the October riots.

“Tsunamis are like water, they adapt to and adopt ideas,” read a message posted on Twitter by Democratic Tsunami account on Wednesday morning.

“We accept the #ChallengeLaVanguardia and call on everyone to throw an inflatable ball and write a message to the world.”

Other posts from the same account added: “At 8pm, everyone will be able to see the match and the message ‘Spain, sit and talk’ will be transmitted around the world.

“The actions of today, like all of Democratic Tsunami’s, will be strictly non-violent.”

Barcelona had issued a statement on Tuesday night to fans planning to attend the game, advising supporters to use public transport, allow plenty of time and warning of “exhaustive security checks” at entrances to the stadium.

Barca also called for calm around the fixture, asking fans “to come to the game at Camp Nou on Wednesday to support the team”.

“The game between Barca and Real Madrid is a festival of football and yet it is without doubt also compatible with a civil and peaceful demonstration of opinion, given the exceptional circumstances faced in Catalonia in recent times,” the statement read.

– Catalan uprising –

Protests broke out in October after nine separatist leaders were sentenced to heavy prison sentences for their involvement in the independence referendum of 2017.

The Clasico was supposed to be played on October 26 but the RFEF decided to postpone “due to exceptional causes”.

“Football has to be for everyone, all over the world,” said Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde on Tuesday. “People should be able to express themselves freely tomorrow, that is what we ask, but that there is respect for everyone.”

Meetings have taken place between the police, clubs and the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) to ensure the safe arrival of the two squads and referees, as well as the nearly 100,000 fans expected to attend.

As well as the massive security presence in Barcelona, the numbers of private security staff in the stands will also be increased to reduce the threat of pitch invasions that could interrupt the game.

“The operation will ensure that the Clasico is played normally,” said the chief commissioner of the Catalan regional police Eugeni Sallent.

Democratic Tsunami hopes to transmit its message — ‘Spain, sit and talk’ — through the world’s most-watched club football fixture, which has an estimated global audience of 650 million.

Barcelona has historically had a close association with Catalan nationalism, with Camp Nou routinely used as a setting for flags, banners, and chants in support of the cause.

The club could suffer the consequences of any altercations or interruptions during the game.

At a meeting in Madrid last week, the RFEF warned it “will apply the regulations in force,” which range from heavy economic sanctions to the closure of Camp Nou to supporters.

AFP

Barcelona, Real Madrid Set For El Clasico

Armed Catalan policemen, known as Mosso d’Esquadra pass by the FC Barcelona logo with a black ribbon and a message reading “We are all Barcelona” before the Spanish league footbal match FC Barcelona vs Real Betis at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona.  LLUIS GENE / AFP

 

Barcelona and Real Madrid will travel to the Clasico on Wednesday from the same hotel as part of a large-scale security operation aimed at reducing the impact of Catalan independence protests. 

The fixture had to be postponed in October due to violent demonstrations and there are renewed fears of unrest breaking out around Camp Nou, where Barca and Madrid will tussle for top spot in La Liga.

Around 3,000 security personnel will be deployed at the stadium and both teams have been instructed to gather at the Hotel Princesa Sofia at midday (1100 GMT) on Wednesday, eight hours before kick-off.

The players, coaching staff and referees will then travel together to the ground around two hours ahead of the match.

It means Madrid will be in a different place to their usual base in the city while Barcelona will arrive earlier than normal for a home match.

“It is a small change, but not very significant. When we play away, we are also in a hotel. It is not a big problem,” said Barcelona’s coach Ernesto Valverde on Tuesday.

Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane described the arrangements as “something different but the rules are the rules”.

Barcelona also issued a statement on Tuesday night to fans planning to attend the game, advising supporters to use public transport, allow plenty of time and warning of “exhaustive security checks” at entrances to the stadium.

Barca called for calm around the fixture, asking fans “to come to the game at Camp Nou on Wednesday to support the team”.

“The game between Barca and Real Madrid is a festival of football and yet it is without doubt also compatible with a civil and peaceful demonstration of opinion, given the exceptional circumstances faced in Catalonia in recent times,” the statement read.

Catalan uprising 

Violent protests broke out in Catalonia in October after nine separatist leaders were sentenced to heavy prison sentences for their involvement in the independence referendum of 2017.

The Clasico was supposed to be played on October 26 but the RFEF decided to postpone “due to exceptional causes”.

Democratic Tsunami, the protest group advocating another independence referendum for Catalonia, has called publicly for its supporters to gather at Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium from four hours before the 1900 GMT kick-off.

“Football has to be for everyone, all over the world,” said Valverde. “People should be able to express themselves freely tomorrow, that is what we ask, but that there is respect for everyone. I believe that is the right thing.”

Meetings have taken place between the police, clubs and the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) to ensure the safe arrival of the two squads and referees, as well as the nearly 100,000 fans expected to attend.

As well as the massive security presence in Barcelona, the numbers of private security staff in the stands will also be increased to reduce the threat of pitch invasions that could interrupt the game.

“The operation will ensure that the Clasico is played normally,” said the chief commissioner of the Catalan regional police Eugeni Sallent.

Democratic Tsunami hopes to transmit its message — ‘Spain, sit and talk’ — through one of the world’s most famous football matches, which has an estimated global audience of 650 million.

Barcelona have historically had a close association with Catalan nationalism, with Camp Nou routinely used as a setting for flags, banners and chants in support of the cause.

“We know we are living in a complex social and political situation but I am convinced that it is compatible with playing a football match,” said the club’s president Josep Maria Bartomeu last week.

Barcelona could also suffer the consequences of any altercations or interruptions during the fixture.

At a meeting in Madrid last week, the RFEF warned it “will apply the regulations in force,” which range from heavy economic sanctions to the closure of Camp Nou to supporters.

AFP

El Clasico: Spain To Deploy 3,000 Security Personnel

 

Spain will deploy a large-scale security operation involving 3,000 personnel at the Clasico on Wednesday, when the likes of Lionel Messi and Sergio Ramos look set to share the limelight with Catalan separatist protests.

Tension in Spain’s north-east region boiled over in October when demonstrations and riots caused the original La Liga fixture between Barcelona and Real Madrid to be postponed.

Democratic Tsunami, the protest group advocating another independence referendum for Catalonia, has called publicly for its supporters to gather at Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium from four hours before kick-off at 1900 GMT.

Renewed fears of unrest have even raised the possibility of the match being postponed for a second time.

“It will be played, the Clasico will be played,” Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu said on Thursday, a pledge repeated in recent days by sports, political and police authorities in Spain.

Meetings have taken place between the police, clubs and the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) to ensure the safe arrival of the two squads and referees, as well as the nearly 100,000 fans expected to attend.

The operation will involve some 3,000 security personnel, as well as a cordon to prevent demonstrations blocking entrances to the ground.

In the stands, the numbers of private security staff will also be increased to reduce the threat of pitch invasions that could interrupt the game.

“The operation will ensure that the Clasico is played normally,” said the chief commissioner of the Catalan regional police Eugeni Sallent.

The fixture was supposed to be played on October 26 but the RFEF decided to postpone “due to exceptional causes”.

Violent protests had broken out in Catalonia after nine separatist leaders were sentenced to heavy prison sentences for their involvement in the independence referendum of 2017.

Democratic Tsunami has previously received support from former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola and hopes to transmit its message through one of the world’s most famous football matches, which has an estimated global audience of 650 million.

In just a few months of existence, the group has already led major acts of disruption. In October, they partially blocked Barcelona airport and in November, they cut off the main motorway between Spain and France for two days.

Close association 

Tsunami aims to promote both “in the stands and on the pitch” its slogan: “Spain Sit and Talk”, a call to negotiate a referendum for independence.

But any details or their plans for protesting around the game remain unknown.

“The plans announced in advance are usually based on three things: expectation, surprise and execution,” said the organisation on Saturday during an exchange of messages with the Catalan regional television TV3.

The group has insisted “it has not said it wants to block or suspend the game.”

Barcelona have historically had a close association with Catalanism, with Camp Nou routinely used as a setting for flags, banners and chants in support of the movement.

After the rulings on the nine separatist leaders were announced in October, the club released a statement in which it declared prison sentences were not the answer.

“We know we are living in a complex social and political situation but I am convinced that it is compatible with playing a football match,” said Bartomeu.

The club could also suffer the consequences of any altercations or interruptions during the fixture.

At a meeting in Madrid last week, the RFEF warned it “will apply the regulations in force,” which range from heavy economic sanctions to the closure of Camp Nou to supporters.

AFP

Real Madrid Not Thinking About Clasico, Says Zidane

Real Madrid’s French coach Zinedine Zidane looks on before the UEFA Champions League Group A football match between Club Brugge and Real Madrid CF at the Jan Breydel Stadium in Bruges on December 11, 2019. JOHN THYS / AFP

 

Zinedine Zidane has brushed off suggestions Real Madrid could be distracted by the upcoming Clasico when they play in-form Valencia in La Liga on Sunday.

Madrid face a difficult game at Mestalla, just three days before taking on Barcelona at Camp Nou in a match that could decide who goes top of the table.

But Zidane’s team cannot afford to underestimate Valencia, who have registered three consecutive victories, including one away at Ajax on Tuesday that secured qualification for the Champions League last 16 as group winners.

Valencia sit eighth, while Barcelona and Madrid are level on points in first and second respectively.

Asked about the Clasico, Zidane said in a press conference on Saturday: “I’m not thinking about that at all and I include everyone who works here at the club in that.

“Our only concern is tomorrow’s game. The rest may be close but at the same time it’s far away. Tomorrow’s game has all my energy and about Wednesday, I’m not interested.”

After Barcelona, Real Madrid play at home to Athletic Bilbao, to complete a tough week before La Liga’s Christmas break.

Zidane admits it will be “difficult not to rotate” in the three fixtures and it remains to be seen whether Gareth Bale is given some minutes against Valencia, after he was left on the bench against Club Brugge on Wednesday.

Bale has just recovered from a thigh injury sustained earlier this month. “The other day Gareth didn’t play but he is here and I am counting on him,” Zidane said. “The important thing is he is available and ready.”

Zidane also has a dilemna over whether to select Casemiro against Valencia, given the Brazilian will be suspended for the game against Barca if he picks up a yellow card.

Madrid are short of other options in defensive midfield.

“I have to pick a starting line-up thinking only about tomorrow’s game – if I think about Wednesday, that would be a mistake,” said Zidane.

“I always talk with the players because I’m interested in the feelings they all have. And with Casemiro, it’s the same. We know his importance and what he gives to the team.”

Ferland Mendy is banned against Valencia and Marcelo is out with a calf injury, meaning Nacho Fernandez or Eder Militao are likely to fill in at left-back.

James Rodriguez trained alone on Saturday as he continues his recovery from a knee problem and will not be ready this weekend. Eden Hazard (ankle), Lucas Vazquez (toe) and Marco Asensio (cruciate ligament) are all out.

AFP

El Clásico: Barcelona To Face Real Madrid Next Week

Barcelona President, Josep Maria Bartomeu.

 

Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu said on Thursday the Clasico against Real Madrid next week will not be postponed again, amid renewed fears of unrest around the fixture. 

Protestors from the Catalan separatist movement, Democratic Tsunami, have called for a “massive” protest outside Camp Nou, where Barcelona are due to play against Real Madrid in La Liga on December 18.

Spain’s most prestigious fixture was originally scheduled for October 26 but had to be postponed following a wave of pro-independence demonstrations in the city.

“I can say that the Clasico will be played, it will not be postponed again,” Bartomeu said at a Christmas press event in Barcelona.

“It is everyone’s responsibility to ensure it goes ahead. We know that we live in a complicated period in Catalonia but that can be compatible with sport.

“Our stadium is a place for free expression, it always has been, and that is why we want to send out a message of normality and calm.

“The club is preparing for the Clasico with complete normality and we tell our fans to come with their family and friends.

“Together we have to deliver a Clasico that is a celebration of sport and of people. We want peace and calm.”

Democratic Tsunami have urged protestors to gather at four points around Camp Nou from 4:00 pm (1500 GMT), four hours before kick-off.

“In an exceptional situation, we should act in an exceptional way,” said a statement from the group on Tuesday.

The rally is the latest in a series of demonstrations that began two months ago when Spain’s top court jailed nine Catalan separatist leaders over their role in a failed 2017 bid for independence.

AFP

Atletico Madrid Bounce Back To Top La Liga Ahead Of Clasico

Atletico Madrid’s Brazilian defender Filipe Luis (L) celebrates a goal during the Spanish league football match between his team and Real Sociedad at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid on October 27, 2018. OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP

 

Defenders Diego Godin and Filipe Luis scored as Atletico Madrid bounced back from their midweek thrashing by Borussia Dortmund with a 2-0 victory over Real Sociedad to move top of La Liga on Saturday ahead of the season’s first Clasico.

Despite a stuttering start to the campaign, the poor form of both Barcelona and Real Madrid have allowed Diego Simeone’s side to drag themselves to the summit after a seven-game unbeaten run in the league.

Wednesday’s 4-0 thumping at Signal Iduna Park was the heaviest defeat of Simeone’s seven years in charge, but Atletico put in a commanding display at the Wanda Metropolitano.

“I was convinced that they would respond in the best way,” Simeone told Movistar. “Today was 90 minutes that showed good togetherness and creates enthusiasm and calmness.”

The 2014 Spanish champions lead second-placed Barcelona by one point, with Real four further adrift, with the two giants to face off at the Camp Nou on Sunday.

After a frustrating first 44 minutes which saw Ruben Pardo twice go close for the visitors, Godin struck on the stroke of half-time, latching onto a loose ball to sweep home his first league goal since March 2017.

Atletico dominated after the restart and left-back Luis put the game to bed on the hour mark with a brilliant curling effort after cutting inside onto his less-favoured right foot.

Elsewhere, Valencia were held to their 10th draw of the season and fifth in a row with a goalless stalemate at Athletic Bilbao.

Marcelino’s men, who finished fourth last term to qualify for the Champions League, are now just three points above the relegation zone despite having only lost one of their 10 top-flight matches so far.

Spain striker Iago Aspas scored a hat-trick as Celta Vigo thrashed Eibar 4-0 to move into the top half of the table, while Levante clinched a fourth successive league victory by beating Leganes 2-0.

Lopetegui dodges questions on future

Earlier on Saturday, Real Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui evaded questions regarding his future at the club after the European champions’ woeful recent spell.

An unconvincing 2-1 midweek win over Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League did little to lift the pressure on his shoulders after a run of five games without a win, and he is widely believed to be on borrowed time just four months after taking over from Zinedine Zidane.

“I hope to still be breathing. I don’t think I am going to die,” the 52-year-old Lopetegui replied at a press conference on Saturday to a question about what the future holds for him after Sunday’s match at the Camp Nou.

“Everyone is 100 percent full of energy and my energies are 100 percent focused on helping the team.”

It will be the first Clasico since 2007 to feature neither Lionel Messi, who is injured, or Cristiano Ronaldo, with Sergio Ramos the only survivor 11 years on in either side from that game.

“The Clasico existed before that. The Clasico has always been the Clasico, and there were even flying piglets,” said Barca boss Ernesto Valverde, with a reference to a meeting of the sides in 2002, when Barcelona fans threw a pig’s head at Luis Figo, their former idol who had crossed the divide to join Real in 2000.

“There has always been tension.”

AFP

Five Conclusions From Barcelona’s El Clasico Triump

Barcelona’s Argentinian forward Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring during the Spanish League “Clasico” football match against Real Madrid CF at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on December 23, 2017. CURTO DE LA TORRE / AFP

 

Barcelona further tightened their vice-like grip on the La Liga title by sweeping aside eternal rivals Real Madrid 3-0 on Saturday to leave the European champions 14 points adrift down in fourth place.

Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Aleix Vidal were on target for the visitors in the second half as Madrid paid for not taking their chances when on top before the break.

Here, AFP Sports looks at five conclusions to draw from El Clasico:

Title decided

The day before Santa Claus comes to Spain, Barca already have what they most wanted for Christmas.

Not only did they leave Madrid trailing, but defeats for Atletico Madrid and Valencia this weekend mean they now lead La Liga by nine points.

Ernesto Valverde’s men are unbeaten in 25 games, stretching back to their previous visit to the Santiago Bernabeu when they were outclassed as Real wrapped up a 5-1 aggregate win in the Spanish Super Cup.

Back then, Real seemed all-conquering after a first La Liga and Champions League double for 59 years, whilst Barca were reeling from the loss of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain.

However, thanks to Valverde’s shrewd management, the Catalans have bounced back in incredible style, dropping only six points in their opening 17 league games while their rivals have floundered.

Madrid need fresh legs

Real have paid a heavy price for not building from a position of strength as they cashed in rather than splashing out in the transfer market in the summer.

Alvaro Morata, James Rodriguez and Pepe all left, whilst Real failed to get their premier target as Kylian Mbappe chose to join Neymar at PSG.

Missing out on Mbappe could prove even more costly when Madrid face PSG in the last 16 of the Champions League.

However, Real don’t just need a refreshment up front to offer back up to the ageing duo of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, now both in their ninth season in Madrid.

The hosts faded physically in the second half as the toil of playing in six competitions this season has become increasingly apparent in recent months.

Barca defence for real

The key to Valverde’s rejuvenation of Barca has been an unusual one for the Catalans.

Unlike the sparkling football showed by Pep Guardiola or Luis Enrique’s treble-winning sides in the past decade, Barca have built from the back.

Goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen has been in outstanding form, but Neymar’s departure has also allowed Valverde to play an extra midfielder to offer more protection to the back four.

Barca have conceded just eight goals in their 25-game unbeaten run, registering 18 clean sheets.

Spotlight finally falls on Zidane

“Tomorrow they are going to hammer me,” recognised Zidane after his decision to surprisingly start Mateo Kovacic instead of a host of other attacking options such as Gareth Bale, Isco or Marco Asensio backfired.

Zidane has enjoyed an almost flawless record during his first two years in charge, winning eight trophies including back-to-back Champions Leagues.

However, his heaviest defeat as a senior coach means his judgement is finally beginning to be questioned.

And that pressure will only intensify unless he can mastermind a way past free-spending PSG come the new year.

A very Messi Christmas

Ronaldo has hogged the headlines in the past month after picking up his fifth Ballon d’Or to move level with Messi in their personal battle to be declared the best player of their generation.

The Portuguese was rewarded for his remarkable goalscoring streak towards the end of last season’s Champions League with 10 goals from the quarter-finals on as Madrid were crowned champions of Spain and Europe.

However, in terms of consistent performances in 2017, Messi has been in a world of his own and rounded off the year with another goal and assist.

AFP

Barcelona Thrash Real Madrid 3-0, Rake In 14 Points

Barcelona’s Argentinian forward Lionel Messi (R) vies with Real Madrid’s Spanish midfielder Marco Asensio during the Spanish League “Clasico” football match Real Madrid CF vs FC Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on December 23, 2017.
JAVIER SORIANO / AFP

Barcelona took a huge step towards regaining the La Liga title as goals from Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Aleix Vidal beat bitter rivals Real Madrid 3-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday to open up a 14-point lead over the European champions.

In a recurring theme of this season Madrid were made to pay for Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema missing first-half chances as Barca took control after half-time.

Suarez rounded off a flowing counter-attack to open the scoring before Messi blasted home a penalty after Madrid defender Dani Carvajal was sent-off for punching the ball off the goal line.

And Messi was the creator as Vidal rubbed salt into Real’s wounds deep into stoppage time.

Victory extends Barca’s unbeaten run to 25 games in all competitions as they moved nine points clear of second-placed Atletico Madrid and exacted revenge for a 5-1 thrashing on aggregate in the Spanish Super Cup at the hands of Real in August.

Madrid do still have a game in hand over Barca to marginally reduce the gap at the top, but their efforts in the new year are now likely to be more focused on becoming the first side to win three consecutive Champions League titles in over 40 years.

Despite the clash between the Spanish capital’s and Catalonia’s two giants taking place just two days after three parties favouring independence for the prosperous region from Spain retained an absolute majority in the Catalan parliament, there was little attention paid to politics inside the ground once the action got underway.

Madrid fans unfurled a huge banner proclaiming it to be a “white Christmas” after they claimed a club record five trophies in 2017.

However, it is Barca who will enjoy the upcoming winter break more after a second-half display which showed the turning of the tide their way since August has been no fluke.

It could have been very different for the hosts if Cristino Ronaldo had buried a huge opportunity when he completely miskicked just 10 minutes in.

Barca didn’t threaten at all until the half hour mark when Messi finally found some room in a congested midfield to pick out Paulinho’s late run and the Brazilian’s acrobatic effort was matched by a flying save from Keylor Navas.

Seconds later it was Marc-Andre ter Stegen to demonstrate why he has been one of the keys to Barca’s success this season by getting an outstretched toe to turn Ronaldo’s fiercely struck shot behind.

Benzema was inches away from giving Real a half-time lead as he headed against the post two minutes before the break.

However, Barca came out a different side in the second period to almost certainly put the title out of Madrid’s reach.

Nine minutes after the break Sergio Busquets’s calm opened up the Madrid midfield as he fed Ivan Rakitic and Sergi Roberto eventually crossed to Suarez to apply the finishing touch.

Suarez was spared the embarrassment of missing two huge chances in an incredible goal mouth scramble that led to Barca’s second.

Navas saved Suarez’s first effort before he fired against the post with the goal at his mercy, but Paulinho’s follow-up was punched off the line by Dani Carvajal.

The Spanish international accepted his punishment of a red card and Messi dispatched the resulting penalty into the top corner to kill the game as a contest.

Ter Stegen produced more heroics to ensure there was no Real fightback as he again denied Ronaldo.

And Barca put the seal of a stunning victory in stoppage time when Vidal drove Messi’s cut-back towards goal and the ball squeezed in under Navas.

AFP

Real ‘Obliged’ To Defeat Barcelona In El Clasico Clash

Real 'Obliged' To Defeat Barcelona In El Clasico Clash
(Files) Barcelona’s Lionel Messi (R) walks past Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo during their Spanish first division soccer match at Nou Camp stadium in Barcelona, October 7, 2012. REUTERS/Albert Gea

 

Real Madrid are “obliged” to beat Barcelona on Saturday (1200GMT) to maintain any hope of retaining La Liga in an El Clasico clash handed extra intrigue by the political cloud overshadowing “the biggest game in world football”.

Barca could face an even more hostile atmosphere than normal in the capital in the wake of regional elections in Catalonia.

Three parties favouring independence for the prosperous region from Spain retained an absolute majority in the Catalan parliament on Thursday.

On the field, Madrid are the more needy side with the European champions trailing the league leaders by a mammoth 11 points at the top of La Liga albeit with a game in hand.

“It will be a massive game,” said Real captain Ramos. “It is the biggest game in the world.

“We are obliged to win more than ever for the situation we are in to try to keep ourselves in the fight for La Liga.”

For the first time, an El Clasico will kick-off at lunchtime as La Liga seeks more attention from Asian viewers with a potential audience of 650 million around the world tuning in to see Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi go head-to-head once more.

And Ronaldo could be paired with Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale for the first time this season.

Real’s ‘BBC’ front three haven’t played a single minute of action together, largely due to a series of injury problems for Bale.

However, the Welshman returned to play his part in the Club World Cup success with the semi-final winner over Al Jazira.

Ronaldo is also “100 percent” fit to play according to coach Zinedine Zidane despite the Portuguese returning to training with the rest of his teammates for the first time this week on Friday.

“He is 100 percent, he trained today and that is all that interests me,” said Zidane, who unlike Ramos has tried to play down suggestions Madrid must win to remain in the title race.

‘Significant advantage’

Barca boss Ernesto Valverde believes the spectacle on the field will not be affected by the reception the Catalan giants receive.

Valverde’s men also visited Madrid in October to face Atletico Madrid without problems amid heightened political tension following violent clashes in a banned independence referendum called by separatists.

“The atmosphere tomorrow will be good, I have no doubt about that,” said Valverde.

“We went to play at Atletico Madrid close to October 1 when there was a lot of talk about the reception we would get and I think as a football man it is one of the best atmospheres I have seen. There was a good feeling between the teams, the fans and I expect tomorrow will be the same.”

Madrid were the last side to beat Barca and in some style with a 5-1 aggregate thrashing in the Spanish Super Cup back in August.

But, since then, the Catalans have bounced back under Valverde’s guidance to go 24 games unbeaten in all competitions.

To recover from Neymar’s departure to Paris Saint-Germain for a world record fee, Barca have become ever more reliant on the brilliance of Messi and the Argentine has responded with 18 goals already this season.

“It will be important for us to win this game for what it means,” said Messi as he picked up his award for being the top scorer in La Liga last season this week.

“A game against Madrid is special, it is at their place and we would take a significant advantage over them if we win.”

AFP