It sounds a bit crazy but, even with their 16 point advantage in the Primera Division table, Barcelona travel to the Bernabeu on Saturday in need of a result. Two crushing defeats in a week - at Milan in the Champions League and then on Tuesday to Madrid in the Copa del Rey - appear to have taken all the wind from their sails, and a season which promised so much looks in danger of petering out already. Even just limping to the La Liga title would now not be the cause for too much celebration in Catalonia, especially if Madrid go on to win the Champions League.
Europe is looming even larger in Madrid minds ahead of Saturday's game, with the last-16 second leg trip to Manchester United coming just 72 hours later. Blancos boss Jose Mourinho will want to balance the chance of another win over their domestic rivals with the knowledge that an exit at Old Trafford would likely also see their season enter a long lull, at least until May's Copa del Rey final against city rivals Atletico. Going for the game against Barca, and boosting confidence further with a good performance, looks the best bet for the Special One.
More immediately, the fact Lionel Messi missing training on Wednesday after complaining of feeling unwell was a further worry for Barca fans, and he did look very under the weather when running into Madrid’s elastic brick wall at the Camp Nou the previous evening. He should be fine to start, although his energy levels may be again affected.
Barca’s real problem looks a little further back in midfield, where neither Cesc Fabregas’s quick thinking and strong running or Xavi Hernandez’s metronomic passing are working right now. The Catalan press reported on Wednesday morning that both players had taken pain-killing injections before the Copa second leg to deal with ongoing hamstring injuries, but Xavi suggested on Tuesday night that Barca’s problems were more mental than physical.
Messi, for one, has looked as subdued as he ever has in both the recent losses. The absence of still very ill coach Tito Vilanova could be weighing more heavily than it seemed at first, while stand-in Jordi Roura is now disproving the previously widely-held view that just about anyone with a rough knowledge of Barca's 'philosophy' could manage the Catalan side of superstars.
Many observers - and apparently Andres Iniesta - reckon the solution to their current problems involves starting a natural frontman in David Villa, in place of Fabregas, while plenty of pundits want Javier Mascherano and Cristian Tello also brought into the team. Mascherano looks more likely, especially considering Carles Puyol's travails against Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo on Tuesday.
That 16 point deficit means Mourinho will likely rest at least some players but, although 90% of respondents to one of AS’s notoriously volatile online polls have called for widespread changes, he will likely be wary of tinkering too much.
Di Maria - a symbol of Madrid’s malaise last week at Deportivo la Coruna and then their resurgence at the Camp Nou - is definitely out, suspended for picking up two quick yellows at Riazor. Kaka is the romantic choice to come in, but putting Jose Callejon’s energy up against Jordi Alba seems Mourinho’s more likely move. Xabi Alonso, troubled with a groin injury recently, could get a rest - with Pepe and Luka Modric also providing contrasting options as potential replacements.
Barca player to watch: Andres Iniesta. While Messi, Xavi and Fabregas have been down in the dumps recently, Iniesta has been the one bright spot for Barcelona, and had looked on course for the best season of his career. He was surprisingly strong when calling for changes to be made on Wednesday, and put down a challenge to Vilanova and Roura to start him in his favoured attacking central midfield position.
Madrid player to watch: Mesut Ozil. While Ronaldo, and to a lesser extent Di Maria, were getting the plaudits after Tuesday night’s Copa win, the contribution of Ozil was generally overlooked. The German, as usual against Barca, had a superb game, working back to help his team get the ball from Barca, and then quickly moving it forward with intelligence. With Di Maria out, and maybe Alonso too, Ozil will have an even more important role than usual in playing the ball forward early and accurately to Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain.
Key battle: Cristiano Ronaldo v Lionel Messi. While their paths do not often cross on the pitch, most Clasicos now inevitably boil down to whether Ronaldo or Messi has the greater influence. And just over 12 months there was usually no competition, with Messi in full control and the Bernabeu taking to booing Ronaldo for being a big game bottler. By last September’s first La Liga meeting of 2012-13 their individual battle had evened up, as both talismen scored twice in the 2-2 at the Camp Nou. Since then Ronaldo has taken control, as shown by his double on Tuesday. They have now come head to head in 18 Clasicos, and Ronaldo has overcome his slow start to have now scored more goals across those games [12 to 11].
Trivia: Barcelona have only played their supposed best team [the Gala XI] on six occasions this season [allowing for Jose Pinto as their Copa keeper]. These have brought just two wins [4-0 at home to Espanyol and 4-0 at Levante], one draw [1-1 in Copa at Madrid] and three defeats [3-2 at Real Sociedad, 2-0 at Milan and Tuesday’s 3-1 to Madrid].
Stats: Barcelona have now conceded in 12 consecutive matches in all competitions. They have let in 19 goals during that run, or 1.58 per game. Their last clean sheet came on January 10 against Cordoba in the Copa del Rey.
Odds: Despite their apparent woes Barcelona are favourites for the game at 2.37 with bet365. Madrid are a little further out at 2.87, with the draw at 3.50. Barca avenging Tuesday’s result with their own 3-1 win [a scoreline they achieved in last season’s La Liga Bernabeu encounter] is at 17.00.
Prediction: This is an extra tough one to predict, with Barca’s huge La Liga lead, injury concerns on both sides and Madrid’s Old Trafford trip all important variables. Maybe a draw would suit both sides - Barcelona could regain some confidence and pride, and Madrid would set themselves up well for Tuesday.