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Champions Madrid await shaken Barcelona in Clasico

Real Madrid showed their immense mental strength under pressure in their stunning run to Champions League glory last season.

They came from behind against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City on a wild run to the final, winning when it seemed nearly impossible, when all hope was extinguished.

On Sunday, they host Barcelona in the Clasico, both sides unbeaten in La Liga, but their opponents arrive in a state of wildly contrasting fragility, bruised from another harrowing night in the Champions League against Inter Milan.

The 3-3 draw at Camp Nou left Barcelona on the verge of another humiliating group stage elimination, while Madrid have already wrapped up qualification to the last 16.

League leaders Barcelona who also beat Madrid 4-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu last season, somehow arrive as underdogs, bearing fresh wounds.

From being drawn in the toughest European group, to controversial refereeing decisions in Milan, as well as having multiple players injured, it has been a rough ride for the Catalans.

“It’s a cruel, hard blow, very cruel,” said Xavi after the Inter draw. “Now we have to think about Madrid, the Clasico, recover, and on Sunday try to beat Madrid at the Bernabeu which won’t be easy.

“Let’s leave the Champions League to one side and focus on La Liga, we’re leaders and want to stay there. We hope that it doesn’t affect us psychologically, or the morale of the players.”

Barcelona need to face Madrid with the right mentality. Turning their frustrations into righteous anger and steely determination would help them, but if that spills over into desperation they are at risk of collapse.

Against Inter Milan they struck shortly before half-time, through Ousmane Dembele, but after conceding the equaliser to Nicolo Barella in the second half, they fell apart defensively as they scrambled for another goal.

It was similar to their second half performance last weekend against Celta Vigo, where only goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen earned them a 1-0 win. Barcelona lost control and if they do that against Madrid, they will be inevitably punished.

Madrid played poorly in Poland against Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday and still came away with the result they needed, with a brave 95th-minute Antonio Rudiger header.

“We showed that we never give up,” said Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti. “We played very badly and this can happen in football, but the important thing is not to give up when things don’t work out.”

Karim Benzema is fit once more and after five consecutive appearances without scoring, will be hoping to on the big stage, before attending the Ballon d’Or gala in Paris on Monday, where he is expected to win the trophy.

His Barcelona counterpart, Robert Lewandowski, is the competition’s top goalscorer with nine and hit the target twice against Inter even as some of his team-mates floundered.

Real Madrid have only kept one clean sheet in La Liga but, despite only conceding one league goal, Barcelona’s defence seems like the one in tatters, left hoping Jules Kounde can return from injury to patch things up.

Regardless, Benzema and Madrid will be confident they can kick their rivals while they are down.

Player to watch: Antoine Griezmann

After signing a new Atletico Madrid deal until 2026, French striker Antoine Griezmann has been let off his lease. The forward was limited to playing only for short periods near the start of the season as the club tried to strike a new transfer deal with Barcelona for the loanee.

Griezmann played well against Girona last weekend in a 2-1 win, setting up a goal for Angel Correa, and while others may start to tire, he should have plenty of energy in reserve. He’ll need it against Ernesto Valverde’s Athletic Bilbao.

Key stats

0 – Neither Real Madrid nor Barcelona have lost a game thus far in the Spanish top flight. Will something give?

4 – Real Sociedad’s Mikel Merino leads the assists charts on four, with his creative influence key to their good form.

19 – Barcelona goalkeeper Ter Stegen has saved 19 shots this season out of 20, conceding just one goal so far in La Liga.

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