A titanic Clasico lays in wait

When the Spanish league called time on the first half of the La Liga campaign, few would have imagined the predicament faced by Carlo Ancelotti's Real Madrid at the beginning of March.

Fresh off the back of a historic 10th Champions League title Los Blancos started the current campaign in red-hot form, sweeping aside those who dared face the combined might of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale.

However, they are now facing growing talk of dressing room unrest amidst a poor run of form. Granted they haven't had the best of luck when it comes to injuries, losing the influential duo of Luka Modric and Sami Khedira to long-term injuries, while James Rodriguez and Sergio Ramos are the most recent additions to their injury list.

Despite being shorn of the services of two key midfielders in Modric and Khedira, though, Real powered through the first few months of the season, thanks in part to Ancelotti's tactical switch to a 4-4-2 and the scintillating form of Ronaldo.

So why are they currently in the midst of a rotten run of form? Why is Ronaldo struggling to replicate the form that saw him installed as the bookies favourite to claim the Pichichi Trophy?

Perhaps the answer lies in the injuries to players in key areas. In the absence of the injured Khedira and Modric the likes of Toni Kroos and Isco have been tasked with supplying the ammunition for Real's BBC (Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo), and while they initially managed to do just that they have not been able to produce the goods of late.

Germany international Kroos, in particular, alluded to the fact that he was heading for burnout, back in November, following a tiring campaign at the World Cup in Brazil. It would be hard to argue against those who claim Kroos' drop in form is due to accumulated fatigue. But he isn't the only player in Real's star-studded squad struggling to maintain a high level of performance.

The goalscoring form of Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema has trailed off over the past month, while young midfielders Asier Illarramendi and Lucas Silva have failed to make a lasting mark in the Madrid midfield when called upon.

Most telling of all, though, is the fact that Real and Ronaldo have seemingly failed to recover from the shock humbling at the hands of reigning league champions Atletico Madrid just two days after Ronaldo's 30th birthday. If Ronaldo's birthday wish was to reclaim the league title from the clutches of their cross-town rivals, then it seems his request fell on deaf ears.

Los Blancos were defeated 4-0 and while the club's notoriously fickle fans were most certainly unhappy with the result, it's fair to say they were even less impressed by Ronaldo's insistence on going ahead with his birthday celebrations a few hours after that loss. Since that fateful day on February 7, Ronaldo has been unable to replicate the form that saw him net 25 league goals by mid-December – more than the combined total of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.

Ronaldo will be the first to admit he is currently not at his best – he has scored just two goals in the five games following his sending off in the 2-1 victory over Cordoba. Have his struggles in front of goal come as the result of the team's poor form or is it a case of the team suffering as a result of his goalscoring woes? Based on the evidence of Wednesday's humbling defeat to Schalke, you could argue it's the former.

A large section of Real's global support feel that Bale is the man who should be dropped if Ancelotti decides to revert to the 4-4-2 that brought Real their early-season success. The Champions League defeat to Schalke saw him employ the formation favoured by many of the club's supporters but it didn't have the desired effect. Iker Casillas had a dreadful evening in goal as Real failed to contain the attacking threat of their German opponents, who at times were launching attacks at will. Not even a headed brace from Ronaldo was enough to rescue Real on this occasion as Gareth Bale once again had an evening to forget. The world's most expensive footballer appears to suffering a crisis of confidence and Real are certainly the worse off for it.

Whatever route Ancelotti decides to take, it is clear that a change is needed to kickstart the Spanish giants' campaign. The Italian tactician will have very little time to steady the ship, however, as Real lock horns with relegation-threatened Levante at the Bernabeu on Sunday before taking on Barcelona at Camp Nou on March 22. The return of Modric will presumably restore a semblance of calm to Real's midfield and with Khedira also back in the mix the mood in the entire camp is bound to be lifted by a sense of optimism heading into one of the most highly anticipated derbies in recent years.

Barcelona Resurgence
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What adds an extra layer of intrigue to the upcoming Clasico is that fact that Barcelona are now in the midst of an impressive run, spurned on by the new-found form of summer signing Luis Suarez.

In stark contrast to Real Madrid's struggles, Luis Enrique's men are currently enjoying their football, perfectly demonstrated by a 6-1 demolition of Rayo Vallecano on Sunday afternoon.

Suarez showed exactly why Barca forked out a massive fee to sign him from Liverpool in the summer as he produced another eye-catching performance, netting two goals and winning the penalty that led to Messi's opening goal. He struggled initially to fit into Barca's system, but has scored an impressive eight goals in his last five appearances in all competitions, including a brace against Manchester City in the Champions League.

His resurgence has dovetailed neatly with Messi's improved output and, based on current form, Barcelona are most certainly favourites to claim all three points in El Clasico.

It's no surprise that things have finally started to click for Enrique and co. – Suarez was bound to find his feet sooner or later, especially as he headed to Spain off the back of an incredible season with Liverpool.

However, it's not all sunshine and roses at Camp Nou following the widely publicised falling out between Enrique and Messi. While they have since put their differences aside, there does appear to be a tension simmering beneath the surface. Rumours persist over the future of the talismanic skipper, who is reportedly not a fan of his manager's brand of football. The Speculation hasn't adversely affected Barca, but another defeat to Real Madrid in El Clasico could see those problems thrust to fore once again.

Enrique's squad selection has also raised more than a few eyebrows on the Camp Nou terraces, with club legends Xavi Hernandez and Andres Ineista seeing their playing time reduced. Selection issues aside, though, Enrique has gone back to principles which earned the club and former boss Pep Guardiola numerous trophies and accolades. Barca really do appear to be on the rise after making an indifferent start to the season.

The Catalan club will have the perfect chance to make a declaration of intent when they square off with their bitter rivals in under a fortnight and while the result of Spain's biggest rivalry won't be the deciding factor in both teams' quest to knock Atletico off their perch, it will presumably give the victors a psychological edge as the jostling for pole position continues between now and the end of the campaign.

The question is; will the outcome of El Clasico be decided by Real's individual brilliance, the return of Luka Modric and Sami Khedira, or a change in formation, or will Barca's unwavering philosophy and dynamic style of play win the bragging rights and plaudits?

Will the world's most expensive footballer, Gareth Bale, and the former holder of the very same moniker, Cristiano Ronaldo, silence their critics, or will Barca's fearsome front three announce themselves to the world once and for all?

Virgil Maia

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