One of the most anticipated games of the season takes place on Thursday as Real Madrid and Barcelona meet in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, available to viewers in the U.S. live on ESPN+ from 2 p.m. ET.
– Stream LIVE: Real Madrid vs. Barcelona, Thursday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN+
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Which players are in form? How do the teams line up? Who will win? Here’s everything you need to know about the El Clasico on Thursday.
The mood can change quickly at Barca these days, and there’s a remarkably different outlook going into Thursday’s Clasico compared to last month’s Supercopa final against Madrid, which they won 3-1.
Xavi slammed Sunday’s 1-0 defeat to Almeria, just their second in LaLiga this season, as Barcelona’s “worst performance of the campaign” and it’s hard to argue with him. With Pedri and Ousmane Dembele missing through injury, Barca lacked creativity, resorting to crosses most of the time and they ended the game with just one shot on target.
That loss came after Europa League elimination at the hands of Manchester United and back-to-back defeats have raised a few questions around Camp Nou. Do they have the squad depth to get over the line? Was the money spent at the start of the season invested wisely? On top of that, they remain without the influential duo of Pedri and Dembele and have now also lost star striker Robert Lewandowski to injury.
In general, though, Barca have been remarkably consistent on the domestic front and are much improved defensively. They still have a seven-point lead at the top of LaLiga and a cup final to play for, but recent performances have been poor enough to generate doubts heading into a tie against a Madrid side that’s known for being so good over two legs.
Xavi describes himself as someone who loves a challenge. Well, there are few bigger for Barca than a three-game series against Madrid which could dictate whether this, his first full season in charge of the Blaugrana, is deemed a success or not.
Real Madrid form
Madrid are often much better at riding with the punches than Barcelona and go into Thursday’s meeting in relatively good shape following a patchy spell in the league in January. Dropped points against Villarreal, Real Sociedad and Mallorca saw them slip eight points behind Barca after the World Cup, and the gap is still at seven points despite only managing a draw against Atletico Madrid at the weekend. Barca’s defeat to Almeria feels like a lifeline for Carlo Ancelotti’s side ahead of the league Clasico later this month.
It is the Champions League, as ever, though, that has boosted Madrid’s morale in recent weeks, with their whopping 5-2 win at Anfield against Liverpool a reminder of how dangerous they can be. Vinicius Jr. and Karim Benzema were both in fine form in that game and pose a serious threat to Barca’s improving backline. David Alaba and Ferland Mendy are both injured, which should mean Nacho Fernandez at left-back, while forward Rodrygo Goes is a doubt, but Madrid’s injury problems have eased up elsewhere.
They have the luxury of being able to field three players named in the FIFPro XI this week (Thibaut Courtois, Luka Modric and Benzema) and have great depth in midfield. However, Ancelotti will be taking nothing for granted. January’s Supercopa defeat is still in the memory, and it’s been less than a year since Barca won 4-0 at the Bernabeu in LaLiga.
Barca have conceded just eight goals in 23 league games this season and a large reason for that is the form of Araujo. The Uruguay centre-back’s recovery pace allows them to play on the front foot, safe in the knowledge that he can clean up long balls in behind.
However, his role against Madrid is often different. Xavi typically picks him to play right-back, where he might be able to keep Vinicius quiet, and he’s done well with that remit in the past. Given the injuries Barca have across the forward line, plus the fact that the Copa del Rey semifinal, second leg, is at Camp Nou in April, Barca’s focus will be on limiting Madrid’s attack, even if it pains them to admit it. Elsewhere, with Dembele, Pedri and Lewandowski all out, the emphasis will be on Raphinha to deliver in the final third.
There was disappointment within Madrid that the France international striker did not win FIFA’s The Best Men’s Player award on Monday, missing out to Argentina World Cup winner Lionel Messi. And, in a sense, there are few better stages on which to respond to that disappointment than in a Clasico.
Benzema’s season has not been as electric as last year yet because of injuries, but his numbers are still good. He has netted 18 goals in 25 appearances in all competitions and looks to be returning to full fitness just as Madrid need him most. With five goals in his past four appearances, plus one in each of his past two matches against Barca, he is in good form and will look to take advantage of the extra attention Vinicius draws from defenders when these two teams meet.
Barcelona have won 73% of their games with Pedri in LaLiga since his first season at the club in 2020-21 (P70 W51 D11 L8), compared to 45% without him (P29 W13 D8 L8). That shows you just how much Barca miss the Spain midfielder when he’s unavailable.
Vinicius averages three dribbles per game in LaLiga, which is 1.2 more than any other player. Villarreal’s Samuel Chukwueze ranks second with 1.8. Vinicius is also the most fouled player in Spain’s top flight, being fouled 3.8 times per game. Rayo Vallecano’s Isi Palazon is next on 2.9. This is why Xavi switches Araujo’s position against Madrid.
Real Madrid 2-1 Barcelona: Madrid need to take advantage of the fact they are playing at home against a Barca side missing some of their best players. Barca need to make sure they are still in the tie when it heads back to Camp Nou for the second leg in April.