The pressing question is what will determine Sunday’s Clasico

We are more than 24 hours away from one Classic Which will have a considerable impact on this season’s La Liga title race. Barcelona lead Real Madrid by nine points in the table and have won the last two matches between the sides, and a third straight win would clinch the league title for the Catalan club.

On the back of an impressive Champions League last-16 win over Liverpool, though, there is every reason to suggest Madrid have begun their progress at the inflection point of the campaign. They are Spain’s defending domestic champions and won the October meeting between the clubs in convincing fashion.

Here’s what you should expect when the two famous rivals line up on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, live streaming on ESPN+)? ESPN’s Barcelona and Madrid correspondents Sam Marsden and Alex Kirkland break down the biggest stories and predict them ahead of the match.

How relevant are past Clásicos, and how could Madrid change the outcome?

Barcelona’s 1-0 win at the Santiago Bernabeu in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinal on March 2 wasn’t a complete fluke — although their goal, a Frank Casey shot into the net through Thibaut Courtois’s save and Eder Militao’s inadvertent deflection, was — but it was unusual. Madrid “dominated” the game, in Courtois’s words. Barcelona had a historically low 35.4% possession, forced to sit back and defend deep. Madrid had 13 shots to Barca’s four. xG, or expected goal difference, was minimal: 0.57 for Madrid and 0.63 for Barca. Madrid’s problem was the final ball and creating high-quality chances. None of their shots were on target.

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For coach Carlo Ancelotti, the idea for Sunday’s La Liga Clasico – and the return leg in the Copa on April 5 – is simple: play the same way, but be more clinical in the final third.

“We just have to repeat this game in Barcelona,” he said after the Copa match. “Defensively, with a high press, it was one of Madrid’s best games. If we can play with this intensity, we will have more chances.”

Expect Madrid to stick with that high press in midfield — be it Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Federico Valverde or Eduardo Camavinga — pushing to disrupt Barca’s passing. Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior need to be sharper in attack. Benzema had just one shot in that last meeting and Vinicius was limited to two, unable to escape Ronald Araujo’s attention.

Of course, Barcelona will also be looking to improve on that Copa display. It’s hard to imagine Xavi’s team having so little possession at Camp Nou. — Kirkland

Are the two goalkeepers the most important players here? If so, what is the status of Classico?

The Clásicos of the last 15 years have largely been defined by goal scorers and flair players. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Modric and Andres Iniesta. However, ask the two clubs’ supporters who their most important players currently are and Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Courtois will likely rank near the top. This suggests that the quality of this fixture has perhaps declined in recent years, but nothing should be taken away from the two goalkeepers.

German stopper Ter Stegen is having arguably his best season since joining Barca nine years ago. Through 25 La Liga games, he has kept 19 clean sheets and conceded just eight goals, the highest in both leagues at this stage of the campaign. The eight goals conceded come from an xGA (expected goals against) of 20.56. He made 51 saves, some spectacular, including a heroic performance in a 1-0 win. Putting goals out there is just part of his job, mind. He is at the forefront of Barca’s attack and has completed 82.5% of his 699 attempted passes in La Liga. No goalkeeper in the league has attempted more or had a higher success rate.

On paper, Courtois’ stats don’t compare this season, but his value to Madrid is similar. In the big moments, he’s there. Just ask Liverpool. He kept them out again on Wednesday as Madrid advanced to Europe and was man of the match in last season’s Champions League final between the same two sides. Recent highlights include a fine save in a 0-0 draw against Real Valladolid as Madrid claimed all three points and a huge stop from Borja Iglesias in the recent goalless draw against Real Betis. –Marsden

Why do Madrid beat all visitors in the Champions League but often struggle against Barca?

While Madrid have beaten some of Europe’s best in the past year — dispatching Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, Manchester City in heroic fashion en route to winning the Champions League — Barcelona have proved a tougher test. Barca’s back-to-the-wall 1-0 win in the cup was preceded by a convincing 3-1 victory in the Spanish Supercopa final on 15 January. Yes, Madrid went top in La Liga, a comfortable 3-1 win on 16 October, but before that, Barca put together one of the most convincing performances from an away team at the Bernabeu last season, beating Madrid 4-0 on 20 March.

Look back a bit and Madrid’s record is quite good. They played six Clásicos until they were beaten 4-0, including four straight wins in La Liga in 2020 and 2021 for the first time since 1960. Xavi’s arrival at the Camp Nou and Barca’s subsequent improvement — at least internally — saw the match become unpredictable once more. The comparison with last season’s Champions League win is also somewhat misleading. These epic comebacks were only necessary because of how bad Madrid were in their first leg, losing 1-0 to PSG and losing 3-2 home and 4-3 away to Chelsea and Manchester City.

In short: this Real Madrid team is capable of greatness, and very average, and we’ve seen plenty of it in the Clásico and in Europe in recent seasons. — Kirkland

How is the Negreira case hanging over this game and affecting the relationship between these two clubs?

Barcelona’s payment to the former vice president of Spain’s referee committee is testing the bond that has developed between the two Clásico rivals in recent seasons. They were among the only teams to reject La Liga’s deal with private equity firm CVC, a partner in the European Super League project and an immediate cash boost in exchange for a future percentage of their television money. Presidents Joan Laporta and Florentino Perez are both able to see that, even if they always want to win, both teams benefit when the other team is strong.

Madrid are the only La Liga side not to have condemned the revelation of Barca’s payment to former referee Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira in a letter published by Spanish clubs two weeks ago. Last weekend, however, after prosecutors’ decision to seek corruption charges against Barca, Madrid decided to join the charges. Reports suggested Barca had hoped this would happen due to increased fan pressure on Perez, but they too were disappointed – TV3 suggested Laporta would even cancel Sunday’s traditional pre-game managers’ lunch.

Barca continue to express their innocence of the allegations, with Laporta saying they never “buy referees or influence.” For many, though, their image has already been tarnished despite no trial yet. And what happens on the pitch is even being viewed through the prism of litigation. Meanwhile, fans of the opposing team are throwing fake notes and chanting for their expulsion during Barca games.

“It was sad to see,” Xavi said after such an incident during last weekend’s win over Athletic Club. Barca is being judged prematurely, which is not good for society. –Marsden

Real Madrid players to watch

Vinicius. His losing battle with Araujo was the story of the last Clasico. But Vinicius is in form, scoring goals and starring in Madrid’s La Liga win over Espanyol last weekend, and is determined to come out on top this time around. — Kirkland

Barcelona players to watch

Rafinha. Still steady after a summer switch from Leeds United, he has been Barca’s standout attacker in 2023 since Ousmane Dembele was injured. He has won 1-0 in each of Barca’s last two La Liga matches. In total, he now has five goals in his last 10 games and eight in 20 after scoring just once in his first 17 games. –Marsden

Predicted Real Madrid starting XI

Courtois; Dani Carvajal, Militao, Nacho, Ferland Mendy; Eduardo Camavinga, Kroos, Modric, Valverde; Vinicius, Benzema. — Kirkland

Barcelona’s starting XI

ter stagen; Araujo, Jules Kaunde, Andreas Christensen, Alejandro Balde; Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong, KC, Gavi; Rafinha, Robert Lewandowski. –Marsden

Score prediction

Barcelona 1-2 Real Madrid: A Madrid win may not return them to the title race, but a six-point gap will ensure leaders Barca can’t take it easy between now and the end of the season. — Kirkland

Barcelona 1-1 Real Madrid: A draw is enough for Barca to maintain their nine-point lead at the top, while Madrid can settle for a point and save their efforts for upcoming challenges in the Copa del Rey and Champions League. –Marsden

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