Real Madrid are preparing for this
weekend's 'clasico' against Barcelona in the unusual position of
underdogs at their own Bernabeu stadium as they bid to spoil their
rivals progress towards the title.
With Barca enjoying a nine-point cushion at the top of the Primera Liga
and only eight games left even a draw would leave Real facing their
second trophyless season in a row -- an embarrassing failure for a club
striving to be the world's best.
"If we lose it will be practically impossible to win the league,
although we will keep fighting until it is mathematically out of our
reach," says Real skipper Raul.
"After this season, we want to give the fans something to celebrate and
narrow the gap to add a bit of emotion to the title race. But even if we
win Barca will still have the title within their grasp."
For Barcelona a victory in Madrid would confirm that they have finally
emerged from the shadows after six years without any silverware to
reclaim their dominant position in Spain.
"If we win the game, the league could be all over," says Barca
midfielder Rafael Marquez. "It's a great opportunity for us and if we
can win we can finally start thinking about the title."
On paper Frank Rijkaard's Barca team will start Sunday's game as
They beat Real for the first time at the Bernabeu in six years at the
end of last season and outclassed their rivals in their 3-0 victory at
the Nou Camp in November, goals coming from Samuel Eto'o, Giovanni van
Bronckhorst and Ronaldinho.
Eto'o, who moved to Barca at the start of the season after Real decided
against using their option to buy him, has a stunning record against his
He has scored five goals against Real in the league, including three in
his last two visits to the Bernabeu with Real Mallorca, and is enjoying
the most prolific season in his career with 21 goals to his name.
Although Barcelona were lucky to scramble a late 3-3 draw against
high-flying Real Betis last time out, they have not lost in eight games
and know a victory at the Bernabeu will allow them to start planning
their title celebrations.
Real, on the other hand, have huffed and puffed to victory in their last
two games as their struggle to score goals goes on. Ronaldo has just one
strike in 11 outings and Raul has had one of his worst campaigns with
just six goals all season.
The team's most effective striker Michael Owen, who has notched 10
league goals despite only making the starting lineup on 12 occasions, is
still not guaranteed a starting place.
Real's much-vaunted midfield is also having problems. David Beckham,
whose influence has waned, is struggling with back pain and a strained
thigh muscle, Zinedine Zidane looks tired and Luis Figo has lost some of
his sharpness of late.
But Real have the anility to raise their game for big matches and hope
nerves might get the better of their opponents.
"After their (Barca's) draw last Sunday I think we can still win the
league," says Real fullback Roberto Carlos. "We are going to keep the
pressure on them right to the end."
Barcelona will have to make do without outstanding Portugal midfielder
Deco, who is suspended, while Real centre back Walter Samuel and
midfielder Guti find themselves in the same position.
Both teams are also waiting anxiously on the fitness of their captains.
Barca's inspirational centre back Carles Puyol faces a race against the
clock to see if he can recover from an ankle strain, while Raul has been
unable to train with the rest of the squad because of a bruised instep.