More than bragging rights at stake in the Bernabeu

Barcelona must win tonight’s Clasico at Real Madrid or Luis Enrique’s final season in charge at the Catalan club has the potential to go very sour.

More than bragging rights at stake in the Bernabeu

La Liga

Real Madrid v Barcelona

Today: Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid, 7.45pm

Referee: Alejandro Jose Hernandez Hernandez

TV: Sky Sports

Bet: Real 21/20 Barcelona 21/10 Draw 3/1 

Barca travel to the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu three points behind their rivals in the title race, with Madrid having a game in hand and a chance to all but secure what would be their first La Liga trophy in five years.

Zinedine Zidane’s side are also into the Champions League semi-finals, and are favourites to retain that trophy following their dramatic and controversial extra-time victory over Bayern Munich on Tuesday.

Blaugrana fans and pundits have had a lot less to cheer about lately, with the only real high-point of the 2016/17 campaign being the last-gasp comeback against Paris Saint Germain in the last 16 of the Champions League.

However, much of the feel-good factor generated by that incredible performance has dissipated, given the ease with which Juventus saw them off in the next round.

The fallout from Wednesday’s 0-0 draw at home to Juve, and 0-3 aggregate exit, has brought continued questioning of Luis Enrique’s tactics, the board’s recruitment policy, and even the greatness of talisman Lionel Messi, who could not score in either leg.

The glass-half-full view is that this weekend’s game against their main rivals provides a chance to bounce back and lift the gloom.

“[The Juve defeat] will affect us, we are humans, and this hurts,” said Barca centre-back Gerard Pique on Wednesday night.

“Sunday is another big game and we’ll go there to compete, nobody should doubt that. The Bernabeu is a good stadium for us. We’re not in our best moment of the season, but we will go out to win.”

Barca have indeed won on two of their last three visits to the Bernabeu — including a 4-0 win last season during Rafa Benitez’s ill-fated short spell in charge, but Zidane’s Madrid are made of different stuff and have won one and drawn one since, with Sergio Ramos’ late headed equaliser last December at the Camp Nou now looking so important.

Should Barca lose at the Bernabeu, or even draw, then thoughts will inevitably turn to the summer.

A new coach is sure to come in, with Athletic Bilbao’s Ernesto Valverde the favourite, though the final decision has not been made.

There is also significant doubt around the futures of Messi and club captain Andres Iniesta, with both their current contracts ending in summer 2018, and no sign of any agreement on extensions.

It remains almost unthinkable to see the Argentine playing anywhere else, but Iniesta, 33 in May, is considering moving on after a season in which injury and inconsistency have seen his influence dwindle considerably.

Barca’s squad has many other players past their peak. Some — or all — of Javier Mascherano [33], Luis Suarez [30], Gerard Pique [30], and even Sergio Busquets [29 in July] must replaced soon.

“This team must be relaunched, which means signing a new coach and four or five players,” blaugrana pundit Marcos Lopez said this week. “And not just youngsters to fill the bench, as has been done lately. The directors need to make decisions and they must be correct.”

Nobody at the club appears to have the personality or power to make such drastic calls. Recent big-money signings, such as Arda Turan and Andre Gomes, which were made for political reasons, have not improved the team, reflecting badly on sporting director Robert Fernandez and president Josep Maria Bartomeu.

The situation seems not unlike 2008, and the club’s last really low point, pre-Pep Guardiola’s appointment.

It might change if Messi gets a winner and Barca draw level atop the table, then retain the trophy, with Zidane’s side distracted by two tough European semi-finals with neighbours Atletico Madrid.

Or a Barca defeat will have everyone around the Camp Nou rushing to save themselves. Then, nobody would be safe from the repercussions, in either the boardroom or the dressingroom.

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