Ultimate Clasico preview: Predictions, key players, betting picks, form guide, more

Football

Saturday is a special day in LaLiga as we get our first Clasico of the 2023-24 season as Barcelona host eternal rivals Real Madrid. These games are always big events — this is their 255th official meeting, with Real Madrid edging the series with 102 wins to Barca’s 100 and 52 draws — and it’s very much true heading into their clash at Montjuic.

Even though the game will take place at Olympic Stadium due to renovations at Barça’s Camp Nou home, the atmosphere will be every bit as electric. The home side will need that in order to prevail. Not only are Carlo Ancelotti’s Real side top of the table after 10 games, with Barça just a point behind them, but Los Blancos have been dominant in recent meetings, beating Barcelona 4-0 in the Copa del Rey semifinal, second leg and winning three of their last four away games against Xavi’s side.

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That said, Barça are reigning LaLiga champions and will be hoping to rebalance the rivalry this weekend. So how will the two teams fare on Saturday? What kind of form is each team in? Are there good bets to make? Who will be the key players that impact the final result? And who do our experts think will win?


What’s new since the last Clasico, and how have these teams progressed since

The spoils were shared last season, but Barça will feel they edged it by beating Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup final and again at Camp Nou on their way to the 2022-23 LaLiga title. Madrid, who had won last season’s league meeting at the Santiago Bernabeu, responded with a thumping 4-1 aggregate win in the semifinal of the Copa del Rey. However, there have been changes on both sides of the divide since.

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Xavi: Barcelona will be at 100% for El Clasico

Barcelona boss Xavi says his side are in good shape for Saturday’s clash with Real Madrid after their 2-1 win vs. Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League.

Madrid’s talisman Karim Benzema left for the Saudi Pro League, so Carlo Ancelotti has re-built around Vinicius Jr. and €100 million signing Jude Bellingham, who has made a scintillating start to his career at the club. Elsewhere, Ancelotti is starting to phase out veteran midfielder Luka Modric, while Fran García, Joselu and Kepa Arrizabalaga also arrived in the summer. The latter replaced goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois who, like Eder Milito, is sidelined with a long-term ACL injury.

Meanwhile, Barça are trying to evolve under Xavi Hernandez. A solid backline won them LaLiga this season, but Xavi wants to improve the attack. João Cancelo, João Félix and Ilkay Gündogan all joined this summer in order to help with that objective; veteran midfielder Oriol Romeu and defender Iñigo Martínez also signed in the summer as Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Ousmane Dembélé (among others) departed. An unbeaten start to the season has followed, albeit with ups and downs along the way, and they go into Saturday’s game just a point behind LaLiga leaders Madrid. — Sam Marsden

How have Barca and Real Madrid looked so far this season?

Real Madrid go into this Clasico at the top of the table, with eight wins, a draw — Saturday’s 1-1 at Sevilla — and just one defeat so far, although that loss, 3-1 to Atletico in the Madrid Derby, stung. They have the best defensive record in LaLiga, conceding seven goals in 10 games, but scoring is a concern. Girona, Atletico Madrid and Barca all have more goals than Madrid’s 21. They’ve over-relied on Jude Bellingham’s over-performance (with eight goals) and while Joselu has delivered (with five) neither Vinícius Júnior (two, after a month out through injury) or Rodrygo Goes (one) have done enough.

Bellingham has been LaLiga’s strongest player this season, with those eight goals coming from 22 shots and an xG (Expected Goals) of 4.05, but Rodrygo has been its most profligate, with one goal from 34 shots and an xG of 3.88.

Barcelona are the only unbeaten team in LaLiga, but their record has been marred by three unnecessary draws: 0-0 at Getafe, 2-2 at Mallorca and 2-2 at Granada. Both 2-2s were characterised by glaring defensive errors, while goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s decline from last season’s superhuman form to “mere mortal” has also contributed. His Goals Prevented — which subtracts the number of goals conceded from the number of goals he’d be expected to concede — is at -0.01. Basically, he’s only saving what he should, nothing more.

Five of Barca’s seven league wins have come with narrow one-goal margins, including their last two, 1-0s v Sevilla and Athletic Club. Hit hard by injuries, new arrivals Joao Felix and Joao Cancelo have been crucial as have youngsters Lamine Yamal and most recently, thanks to his match-winner against Athletic, Marc Guiu. — Alex Kirkland

Ancelotti vs. Xavi: Comparing, contrasting their coaching styles and how it might play out on Saturday

They’re eons apart in terms of age and experience, but the pair are eternally linked by the fact that both men possess the extraordinary power to convince and inspire. Okay, they also share the fact that their careers were spent in all-time great midfields — Ancelotti as more of an organiser and prompter with Roma and Milan, Xavi a wonderful orchestra-conductor with one of the best passing ranges in history. But in the modern era, an age where top coaches truly need to get under the skin and understand the psyches of their superstar players, “Carletto” and Xavi are blessed with warmth, tremendous communicative powers and a fascination for building.

To some extent, and without overdoing it, the style of football each coach promotes tells a little bit about how they were as players.

Ancelotti was talented, smart and successful: make no mistake about that. But he was pragmatic too, often charged with ensuring that the legendary players around him excelled.

Xavi, both the player and the coach, wasn’t only an evangelist for a very specific style of football — he was/is something of an “ultra.” To him, it’s We play this way, and no other way, and I’m never changing. It’s something that, given Barcelona’s awful injury problems, might cost him in this Clásico. They might need a practical approach, rather than a daring one, to compete with this version of Madrid, but he will stick to his principles.

Please note that there’s extreme respect and affection between the two; they are both what you might call “gentlemen.” Does that mean that it’s impossible that they get tense, noisy and agitated on Saturday? No, not at all. But once the dust settles, they’ll still be from an elite group: football’s good guys. — Graham Hunter

Who will be the key player to tip this contest one way or the other?

Ilkay Gundogan. In terms of headlines, the Germán midfielder has made a low-key start to his Barcelona career. But with injuries to Pedri and De Jong, the responsibility in midfield has been thrust upon him, and he has plenty of big-game experience. No Barça player has created more chances (21) in LaLiga this season, and Gundogan will be tasked with finding the spaces in Madrid’s half. — Sam Marsden

The obvious answer is Bellingham, and I’m sure others will have picked him … so for variety’s sake, how about Vinicius Junior? He hasn’t hit the heights of the past two seasons, but after a month back from injury, he’s shown signs — against Napoli and Osasuna in particular — of being close to his best. Madrid’s left-hand side with Vinícius and Bellingham — the latter has been drifting left in recent games, both in and out of possession — could be decisive. They’ll love attacking the space behind Barça defender Joao Cancelo when he gets forward. — Alex Kirkland

I don’t buy the idea that there’s one key guy in a Clasico. These games often have some of Newton’s Third Law of Motion in them: in other words, for each great performance, there’s almost always an equal and opposite nightmare display. So, while it’s obvious that Bellingham’s form puts him forward as Madrid’s key man, what about Vinicius? Xavi will rely heavily on Cancelo and Ronald Araújo to shackle them. Whichever of those pairs of players dominate is where you’ll find the proverbial “key man.” On paper it’s the Englishman, but Araujo is pretty special. I’m saying Bellingham or Araujo. — Graham Hunter

Fermín López. The youngster provides a lot of fight in the middle of the pitch, as well as an ability to get into the box and contribute. He could be the unexpected hero in a game full of superstars. He scored a brilliant goal against Madrid in the Clásico played in Dallas over the summer, and he’ll be extra-motivated for his first competitive meeting against Los Blancos because he’s been a Barça fan all his life. — Moises Llorens

Jude Bellingham will be the key, for various reasons. First, because he’ll be responsible for alleviating some of the pressure on Rodrygo and Vinicius to score in such an important Clasico. Second, his form would naturally intimidate any opponent and third, his strength of personality is overwhelming — where better than Montjuic to stake his claim to being the player of the season? Bellingham’s assertive play will be vital in keeping Romeu busy in the Barca midfield and free up his two Brazilian teammates, who both head into Saturday’s game with something to prove. — Rodrigo Faez

Betting picks

Odds courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook

Barcelona cruised to the LaLiga title last season, winning by 10 points over second-place Real Madrid despite underlying numbers that were much closer than that. Through 10 games this season Real Madrid are atop LaLiga, one point ahead of third-place Barcelona, though Barcelona’s underlying numbers are better so far.

However, the biggest on-field storyline for this game is injuries. Barcelona had only 12 first-team players available for Wednesday’s Champions League game, and they likely won’t have Robert Lewandowski, Frenkie de Jong or Pedri (among others) for El Clasico. Without those playmakers, it’s hard to see Barcelona piling up scoring opportunities.

Joao Felix has been quite good this season, with three goals and three assists, but Real Madrid’s defense has been solid, conceding the third-worst shots in LaLiga so far. I like Barcelona under 1.5 goals at -125.

Real Madrid obviously aren’t intimidated by playing at Camp Nou, winning three of their last four league meetings there, and five of the last seven overall. Manager Ancelotti has seen everything everywhere, and he’s won half of his league games vs Barcelona since rejoining Madrid two years ago. Given all that experience and pedigree, I’m taking Real Madrid to win and 2+ total goals, which Caesars has +225.

With Barcelona’s health issues, Real Madrid is simply better right now, and 27 of the last 30 league Clasicos have had multiple goals. — Paul Carr

Prediction time! Who will win on Saturday?

Barcelona 2-1 Real Madrid. Either I’m really bad at predictions, or recent Clásicos have defied logic. On that basis, despite a lengthy list of injuries, I’m tipping Barça to edge it. Bellingham will get his goal, but Xavi’s side will make the most of their home advantage. — Sam Marsden

Barcelona 1-3 Real Madrid. It’s a tough one to call; the teams met five times last season, with Barça winning three of them, but I’m reminded of the way Madrid hurt Barca on the break in their 4-0 Copa del Rey win at Camp Nou in April. Barça might dominate possession, but the pace of Vinicius, Rodrygo, Fede Valverde and Bellingham could do serious damage on the counterattack. — Alex Kirkland

Madrid will win. Barcelona, under Xavi, have the better Clasico record in recent months. But whichever side is in better physical condition gets a huge advantage in imposing their quality more successfully. Los Blancos have better momentum, fewer problems and that 4-0 thrashing of Barcelona at Camp Nou last time they visited (in the Copa). — Graham Hunter

Barcelona 1-1 Real Madrid. With Barça’s long injury list — it’s worth noting that even if they get some players back, they will be out of match rhythm — Madrid are favourites thanks to their strength and stability in midfield. However, Barça have home advantage, which makes a draw seems reasonable. — Moises Llorens

Barcelona 1-2 Real Madrid. Neither defence is as strong as in other seasons, given the players missing, so I think both teams will score. Taking into account the tiredness of Champions League action in midweek, both will be similar in terms of strength, but I think Madrid are a superior team physically. A game like that could go in favour of the visitors if Los Blancos are able to impose themselves early and maintain their high-scoring form. — Rodrigo Faez

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