Barca and Madrid seek boost in crisis Clasico between giants in decline

Thomas ALLNUTT
Still key: Barcelona's Lionel Messi (AFP Photo/Filippo MONTEFORTE)

Madrid (AFP) - La Liga's most important Clasico for years might also be the most mediocre on Sunday as Barcelona and Real Madrid each fight to lift the gloom by deepening the other's sense of crisis.

Two points separate the league's leading pair, making this weekend's meeting at the Santiago Bernabeu a potentially significant checkpoint in a back-and-forth title race, particularly if Barcelona win and extend their advantage to five.

It will be more significant than last season, when Barca kicked off the calendar's second Clasico nine points clear of Madrid, or the season before, when they were already 15 in front.

But while a tussle at the top of the table is welcome in terms of intrigue, there is an unmistakeable sense of decline hanging over what has become the world's most famous club fixture.

"It's a race of two lame ducks, both of them are bad right now, that's the reality," former Real Madrid forward Jorge Valdano told Onda Cero on Wednesday night.

"Barca's recovery is more down to Real Madrid than Barca themselves."

For both teams, the build-up has been bumpy, with Madrid particularly wounded after a 2-1 defeat at home to Manchester City which has left them on the brink of exiting the Champions League in the last 16 for a second year in a row.

It might have been less concerning had it not come on the back of one win in four and had City not appeared so superior.

"Things really do look bleak," wrote Marca on Thursday. "The only takeaway can be that this Madrid side simply aren't up to it."

They might be about to feel the kind of frustration that has haunted Barcelona during a run of four consecutive years without making it past the semis.

Barca's own problems recently have largely been to do with their president and board, but the emergency signing of striker Martin Braithwaite from Leganes exposed muddled thinking that has affected the squad too.

"We don't have a deep squad because, unfortunately, that's how it was planned," said Sergio Busquets on Tuesday.

Barcelona and Real Madrid's combined 108 points taken at this stage is their second lowest since 2007, beaten only by last year's even lower total of 105.

Barca have been more reliant than ever on Lionel Messi to paper over the cracks in their defence while Madrid's defence has covered their lack of firepower up front, where they remain without an elite scorer, despite the impressive early-season form of Karim Benzema.

- End of golden age? -

Cristiano Ronaldo's shadow still lingers, in part because Messi's brilliance deserves a rival, in the league, but particularly the Clasico, where Ronaldo's presence is undeniably missed.

He is not the only one. Neymar was sold while Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta retired. Gareth Bale's star has dimmed so much that his place in Zinedine Zidane's squad is no longer secure, let alone his starting line-up.

There are some mitigating circumstances like injuries to Eden Hazard, who has the potential to light up any game, and Luis Suarez, who has seven goals in his last seven outings in this fixture.

Yet the sense is of a golden era disappearing or gone, which is having implications for the national team too.

Eleven Spaniards started the last Clasico before Spain won the 2010 World Cup while in the goalless draw at Camp Nou in December there were six, including Gerard Pique, who has retired from international football.

There is a financial element that stretches back further. Where once Barcelona and Real Madrid could strong-arm the transfer market, both have been increasingly squeezed by Financial Fair Play and outmuscled by richer upstarts like Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain.

Last summer, Eden Hazard was the first player Madrid had signed for more than 60 million euros since James Rodriguez in 2014. Barcelona's chief executive Oscar Grau said they needed to reduce their wage bill this season by 18 million euros.

Mediocrity is not likely to last long, particularly if Kylian Mbappe and Neymar can be lured next summer.

With Messi now fit and firing, Barca might even exceed expectations in the Champions League and Madrid could yet pull off an escape against City.

But Sunday's game is a duel of two teams no longer at full pelt, stumbling through transition, pitsand hoping past glories will soon return.