La Liga on the line as Real Madrid face Barcelona in El Clasico
The world will stop for El Clasico this Sunday, with La Liga on the line.
Real Madrid will start the match three points ahead in the title race, with anything other than a win for Barcelona surely ending any hope of winning the league.
It's a monumental match. Ed Alvarez (Real Madrid) and Sam Marsden (Barcelona) look ahead to the battle at the Santiago Bernabeu.
If Barcelona don't win, is that it as far as La Liga is concerned?
Ed Alvarez: Their chances will be dismal, but they will exist. Madrid still have a few difficult La Liga fixtures left: Valencia and Sevilla will visit the Santiago Bernabeu, while Zinedine Zidane's team must travel to Malaga -- who defeated Barcelona two weeks ago -- and Vigo, where the in-shape Celta await. Even though all seem like tough but winnable matches, the semifinals of the Champions League in between could have an impact on the team's performance and make them lose a few points.
Barcelona have an easier calendar -- only Villarreal at the Camp Nou seems mildly threatening -- and to their own chagrin will not be distracted by Champions League action. That said, with a match in hand and a three-point advantage, Madrid would have to completely collapse for their visitors to win this one, but we've seen stranger things happen before.
Sam Marsden: After what happened against Paris Saint-Germain you can't imagine Barcelona throwing in the towel, but if they don't win at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday you have to say that's that in the title race. Lose and they are definitely out of it, six points back having played a game more. A draw will keep them hoping, but Madrid -- especially their players from the back of the wardrobe, as they say in Spain -- have been consistent and possess a steely resilience.
BBC vs. MSN: Who has had the better season?
EA: Both have had their moments here and there, but neither has been particularly consistent as a trio. In previous seasons, we've seen whole months of outstanding football by Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, but in the current one it's been a case of one footballer carrying the other two. Suarez started off well, Messi then took over and in some matches, such as the PSG comeback, Neymar became the reference.
The Real Madrid trio has not been any different: Gareth Bale began the season in terrific shape, but injuries have derailed his campaign. Cristiano Ronaldo commenced slowly and is finishing in top form, while Karim Benzema is as consistently inconsistent as ever. If anything, both trios have shown how important it is to have a physically strong, skilled midfield to get the best out of them.
SM: There can be few doubts that Messi, Suarez and Neymar have had the better season. Messi is the top scorer in the league and the Champions League and Neymar -- until that Malaga game at least -- has had a dazzling campaign, looking increasingly mature and ready to take over the mantle of world's best player. Suarez hasn't been as good, but still has more than 20 league goals.
Ronaldo, meanwhile, has been hot and cold but has produced some incredibly important performances, like the ones against Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich. But he's been let down by injury-hit Bale and inconsistent Benzema. Strangely, though, Madrid's ability to cope without a red hot BBC is what has helped them build their lead at the top of the table, with their back-up players doing fine jobs. Barca, meanwhile, remain dependent on the same two or three.
Pick a combined XI
EA: Marc-Andre ter Stegen; Daniel Carvajal, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo; Luka Modric, Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Marco Asensio; Ronaldo, Messi.
This combined XI features only players available for the match, considering their current shape. That is why no Barcelona midfielders made it, as Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta -- who would start in normal conditions -- are far from their best form. Finally, with Ronaldo and Messi in the XI, another forward like Neymar or Suarez would make the team unbalanced defensively.
SM: Ter Stegen; Ramos, Pique, Samuel Umtiti; Carvajal, Kroos, Modric, Marcelo; Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar.
Based on this season's form, there was no room for Iniesta or Busquets. The hardest decision, though, was leaving Suarez out. He's scored plenty of goals, but the sensations have been that he hasn't always been at his best -- plus look at who he's got for competition.
EA: Leaving the obvious choice aside -- Ronaldo seems to be peaking at the right moment -- Kroos will have the opportunity to shine against a tired Barcelona midfield that lacks confidence. If the Germany maestro can set the flow of the match with his passing and find ways to feed the forward line, Real Madrid's challenge of defeating the Blaugrana to get closer to a much-anticipated La Liga title will become easier.
SM: Recent Clasico encounters have been dominated by the ongoing duel between Messi and Ronaldo, but it's not all about them -- and we're approaching an era where it won't be about them at all. Obviously Messi will have to be close to his best and Suarez will need to bring his shooting boots but, most importantly, Barca must find a way to make up for Neymar's absence on the left. There's no natural replacement for the Brazil international -- and no one with anywhere near as much pace -- so that will add extra significance to Jordi Alba's role. The left-back has been in and out of the squad in recent weeks and should be fresh and ready to impress.
EA: 3-1. Madrid's midfield line will control the match, taking advantage of Barcelona's struggling form.
SM: 2-2. Barcelona have to go for the win and while Madrid will too, they will probably be happy to settle for a draw, which will keep their rivals at arm's length.