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Clasico stakes are high: Real Madrid cannot afford to lose to Barcelona

Steve Nicol shares his thoughts on who will come out on top in the El Clasico showdown between La Liga's biggest superstars.

This time, the blockbuster script for the single most cinematic clash the game has to offer is easy to write.

Cast Lionel Messi as Luke Skywalker and Luis Suarez as -- who else? -- Chewie, and this is a case of successfully steering Barcelona's Millennium Falcon through the Galacticos' Bernabeu Asteroid Belt, hopefully without landing in the belly of a giant space slug along the way.

Do it with a draw, and Barcelona -- atop the table with an 11-point lead over Real Madrid, who do have a game in hand -- can start designing their 2017-18 Campeones de La Liga T-shirts. Do it with a win, and they can put down a deposit.

Either way, anything other than a victory for Real Madrid, and they will have little to no chance of clawing their way back into the La Liga title race.

Four months ago, you would never have imagined this situation.

Not so much because it was impossible to visualize Madrid faltering a few months removed from winning the Spanish crown and the European Cup. They had consolidated, operating under the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" principle, returning all their starters and most of their key reserve players while adding young, hungry talent.

No one expected Barcelona to have such a strong start to the season.
No one expected Barcelona to have such a strong start to the season.

Rather, Barcelona were suffering through their worst summer in recent history, enough for their new boss, Ernesto Valverde, to wonder what he'd gotten himself into. The situation deteriorated so much that, after being spanked by Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup, none other than Gerard Pique -- the man who joined the club when he was 10, whose grandfather was a club vice president and who embodies a certain kind of "Barcelonismo" -- said that for the first time since he became a first-team regular nine years earlier, he "felt inferior" to the eternal rival.

Who could blame him?

Club members had begun impeachment proceedings toward Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu. Messi had yet to extend his contract, which meant that come June he could walk as a free agent. And the guy who was supposed to be Messi's long-term replacement, Neymar, ended up joining the most nouveau of riches, Paris St. Germain.

Talk about public humiliation.

Things didn't get much better on the transfer front. The signings -- a prodigal son returning after four seasons of underachievement elsewhere (Gerard Deulofeu), a Portuguese defender few had heard of (Nelson Semedo) and a Brazilian midfielder who was playing in China (Paulinho) -- didn't exactly get anyone excited. The one newcomer who did raise expectations was Ousmane Dembele, but he got hurt in mid-September and hasn't returned. And there was an unsuccessful attempt to buy Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool, a pursuit that smacked of desperately trying to turn the Neymar cash into a real superstar.

But then a funny thing happened. Barcelona started winning and never looked back. They cruised to the top of La Liga and cakewalked their way through their Champions League group stage. It wasn't always pretty. But they looked adversity squarely in the eye, shrugged and racked up the Ws.

Real Madrid vs. Barcelona head-to-head
The effectiveness of Lionel Messi this season is in stark contrast to Cristiano Ronaldo as they head into El Clasico.

Meanwhile, Real Madrid found themselves running on ice. Cristiano Ronaldo's boneheaded shove of the referee in the Super Cup after being sent off earned him a five-game ban. That may or may not have set the tone for what was, by his standards, a domestic-goal drought of Death Valley proportions: by the time the end of November rolled around, he had scored just twice in La Liga.

A harbinger of doom? Logic says no, but your gut says otherwise. Madrid continued to drop points. Chances were created and not converted. Opposition prayers turned into top-corner screamers. Injuries began to bite.

Simply put: the sparkle was gone.

At least that was the story until three weeks ago. Since then, there has been a twist, on both sides. Real Madrid are back at full strength physically (even Gareth Bale has returned) and emotionally (the Club World Cup, won last week in Abu Dhabi, may be a tinpot to some, but it matters in these parts). Say it softly, but this is as good as Real Madrid have looked all season.

The trouble is that just as Madrid are regaining their mojo, so, too, have Barcelona kicked it up several notches. Last week's manhandling of Deportivo La Coruna was arguably their best performance of the campaign. Suarez, who was poor earlier, is back in top form. Paulinho is scoring freely from midfield. And, cherry on top, Andres Iniesta -- the man with impeccable timing -- has evidently paced his 33-year-old self to be at his best just in time for the Clasico.

Barcelona and Real Madrid are coming into this Clasico at full pelt: jaws set, eyes ahead, all too aware of what the stakes are. For Real, a loss will mean an early end to their domestic campaign. For Barca, a victory will represent a giant leap toward a Liga title, which in some ways might be their most remarkable in years.

Something's gotta give.

Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.

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