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Apr 9, 2010

Preview: El Clasico: Real Madrid v Barcelona

"El Clasico is just another match that has to be played.'' Possibly one of the understatements of the year from Real Madrid coach Manuel Pellegrini, but it is easy to understand why Real are keen to play down the significance of a match that could go a long way to deciding who wins the La Liga title this season.

• Forum: Who will win El Clasico?
• Forum: Real v Barca: Who's the best?
• Peyret: Exploding the Clasico cliches

With the clubs equal on points at the top, their head-to-head record will come in to play once the final whistle blows, so Madrid will be keen to better Barcelona's 1-0 win in November or keep their goal difference above their rivals if they sneak a single goal win themselves. It really could be that close.

A game that has come to be known as 'the Match of the Millennium,' Barca's trip to Real may not live up to the excitement of the 6-2 thriller from last year, but it will almost certainly be watched by record audiences from around the globe, keen to catch a glimpse of the new, expensively assembled galacticos up against the world's best side and winners of an unprecedented six trophies last year.

Pep Guardiola's men have won their last three meetings against Real Madrid, netting an average of three goals per game, but Pellegrini's side are on a run of 12 consecutive league wins, and have notched-up 15 wins in a row at home, so won't be a pushover.

Real Madrid player in focus: Cristiano Ronaldo. For all the talk of Messi being the greatest on the planet, there is one player who will want to prove that he is still up there at the top. Ronaldo has bagged 25 in 27 games this season for Real and, in what has become an injury-hit first season at his new club, the £80 million man is still a huge attacking threat. With every trick in the book, his pace and skill will test Barcelona's defence to its limit and he will be looking for any chance to unleash a trademark free kick from anywhere near the box.

Barcelona player in focus: Lionel Messi. What more can you say about the world's best player? Barca coach Guardiola was lost for words after the Arsenal game, in which the Argentinean genius netted four goals. Messi will form the thrust of Barca's attacks and pundits have run out of superlatives to throw at him. Last year, the Madrid side attempted to kick him off the ball with some shockingly blatant fouls, but Messi has proven himself capable of fending off such treatment. Give him space to run at defenders and cut in on his left foot and his goal total of 37 in 42 games this season will be increased.

Key Battle: Lassana Diarra v Xavi. Over recent years Real Madrid's excellent attacking ambitions have always been hindered by their inability to replace Claude Makelele in the defensive midfield role. Now they have Lassana Diarra, a ball-winning Frenchman of similar stature who brings solidity to Madrid's middle and gives his team-mates an attacking platform from which to work. He will be tasked with stopping Barca's key playmaker, Xavi, from pulling the strings and will look to disrupt his passing flow. A tough task as Xavi rarely loses possession for his side and if the Spaniard is able to overcome his marker, he will get a free run at the Madrid defence.

Tactics: Both sides have a commitment to playing attacking football and set up in a similar formation with defensive midfielders anchoring the central areas and flying wingers providing width, pace and guile on the flanks. Pellegrini will be under pressure to play a pressing game in order to disrupt Barca's hypnotic passing exchanges, but shouldn't opt to play a high defensive line as Barca have the pace to exploit any space in behind the centre backs. Expect few long balls, neat passing and players who are keen to run at their defenders from each side.

Quotes: Christoph Metzelder on El Clasico: "Both Barcelona and Real Madrid are winning all their matches, so I am sure the game will be crucial. However, there are still other difficult matches to be played, meaning that Saturday's will not decide who wins La Liga.''

Xabi Alonso assesses his opponents: "Barcelona are the best team of the last 20 years, both in terms of performance and in terms of style of play."

In the news: Guardiola has told his team that they are "prohibited from speaking about El Clasico", according to Marca. Guardiola evidently wants complete focus from his players, although he won't be able to stop the media waxing lyrical about Messi, which they have been doing for the past week. Madrid have been linked with a move for AC Milan's Pato, but it is the chase for Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez in the summer that is taking up many headlines.

Away from the two clubs themselves, the issue of possible strike action in Spain has risen its head, with the Association of Spanish Footballers set to stage a walk-out over unpaid wages that would affect the top four league tiers in the country.

Real Madrid team news: Kaka looks to be in the greatest danger of missing out on the tie as he has been struggling to deal with a hernia injury for the past month. Karim Benzema is still not 100% fit, despite returning to training, and Metzelder still has nightmares about the 6-2 drubbing last season, so may be dropped to the bench. Ezequiel Garay should come in as Pepe is still a long-term absentee.

Barcelona team news: Andres Iniesta is still returning from injury and should be available to come on from the bench, but Eric Abidal will definitely miss out after he aggravated his thigh injury against Arsenal and will be replaced by Maxwell. Gerard Pique and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are both struggling to be fit, with Yaya Toure overcoming a minor knock.

Probable Real Madrid team (4-3-2-1): Casillas, Ramos, Albiol, Garay, Arbeloa, Diarra, Alonso, Van der Vaart, Marcelo, Ronaldo, Higuain.

Probable Barcelona team (4-3-2-1): Valdes, Alves, Puyol, Milito, Maxwell, Busquets, Xavi, Keita, Pedro, Messi, Henry.

Soccernet prediction: With a derby game of such importance it is always hard to predict how it will turn out. Barcelona will be tired from their European exertions and Real will smell blood, but a high-scoring draw is perhaps the most likely scenario.

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