The Euro Preview: Barca face Real with unbeaten season on the line

MADRID, SPAIN - DECEMBER 23: Luka Modric (R) of Real Madrid fights for the ball with Sergio Busquets Burgos (C) of FC Barcelona during the La Liga 2017-18 match between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium on December 23 2017 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Power Sport Images/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - DECEMBER 23: Luka Modric (R) of Real Madrid fights for the ball with Sergio Busquets Burgos (C) of FC Barcelona during the La Liga 2017-18 match between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium on December 23 2017 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Power Sport Images/Getty Images) /

The latest El Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid may mark the Blaugrana’s Liga coronation, but it also highlights the best of club soccer.

La Liga

Spain’s top flight, no matter what the standings tell us, is always about two clubs: Barcelona and Real Madrid. This season, La Liga has been all about Barcelona. Real Madrid, after a poor start, never got into the title race. They struggled to stay in the top four while trying to win a third straight Champions League. There’s no doubt these are the two strongest clubs on the planet.

Undefeated Barcelona, meanwhile, go into Sunday’s clash at the Camp Nou as newly-minted league champions (after defeating Deportivo La Coruna 4-2 last Sunday) and recent Copa del Rey winners following a 5-0 rout of Sevilla. Winning the double gives manager Ernersto Valverde’s side bragging rights to domestic dominance over their rivals. That would all go away should Real capture the European title at the end of the month.

For now, this is where these two sides are at. While this game couldn’t come at a worse time for Los Blancos, Barcelona will treat it as a coronation if they can even muster a draw. What was supposed to be a game that could determine the title has all been rendered moot by Barca’s ability to earn results week in and week out. For the Catalan giants, it marks their 25th title in history and seventh in 10 seasons. For Real, reaching their third straight Champions League final (and fourth in five years) means they’re cementing their legacy as one of the best sides in club history.

This latest chapter of El Clasico is, once again, all about Lionel Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo. Messi, who has scored 25 times against Real during his career, is hoping to add to that tally. He has already scored 32 times in the league this season and remains top scorer, outpacing Ronaldo, in second place overall, with 24. Messi’s hat-trick against Deportivo, including two goals in the dying minutes, propelled the Blaugrana to the title.

El Clasico‘s outcome may not mean anything other than bragging rights for either side, but the fight over whether Real’s players should hold a guard of honor (which would involve the Madrid players lining up to congratulate Barca on winning the league) has been ruled out by manager Zinedine Zidane. While the decision may seem petty, it reveals how much these two sides dislike one another.

“I don’t know how much you are going to ask me, but my response is very clear. It is my decision and that is it,” Zidane told reporters. “I don’t understand the guard of honor and it won’t take place, although we are far from the end of the season.”

Serie A

What a difference a week can make. Exactly a week after Napoli defeated Juventus 1-0 to reopen the title race, they fell down to Earth this past Sunday following a 3-0 defeat at Fiorentina. The loss came a day after Juventus scored two unanswered goals in the final three minutes to overcome Inter Milan 3-2. The match, marred by poor officiating, appeared to mirror a time just a decade ago when the Calciopoli scandal engulfed the Italian game. The result leaves Juventus four points ahead of Napoli with three matchdays left in the season.

While Napoli’s title hopes appear dashed, there is still plenty to play for here. Two Juve wins will guarantee them a seventh straight title, but that remains to be seen. Juventus play Saturday at Bologna, while Napoli host Torino the following day at the Stadio San Paolo. That match is expected to feature a capacity crowd of 60,000 passionate Partenopei fans prepared to cheer on their team until the very end after the team sold 11,000 tickets on Monday alone.

It has been a season full of ups and down for both Juventus and Napoli. It remains to be seen what other shocking outcomes await us. Despite the four-point cushion, every game counts at this point. Another Juve slip-up and Napoli will once again get the chance to capitalize. The Bianconeri, however, are not likely to be caught flat-footed again with Gonzalo Higuain back in top form after scoring the game winner last Saturday.

“We’ll need to win all the remaining games to win the title because Napoli will win every remaining match. We need to take things game by game now,” Juventus manager coach Massimiliano Allegri told reporters. “About the match [against Inter], I’ll say it was a wonderful match. It was tough, even though they played with 10 men after the 15th minute.”

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With spots in next year’s European competition up for grabs, the top of the table is far from settled despite Bayern Munich grabbing the title last month.

The only thing you can expect is the unexpected from the inconsistent bunch of teams trying to finish in the top four. Despite having a great season, Schalke, on 57 points, are barely ahead of Borussia Dortmund, who are on 55 with two matchdays left in the season. Hoffenheim, on 52 points, and Bayer Leverkusen, on 51, are vying for the final Champions League spot. RB Leipzig, with 47 points, have a lock on next year’s Europa League.

In the fight for survival, Hamburg’s late resurrection has put everything on hold. Victories in two games against fellow relegation clubs Freiburg and Wolfsburg have put Hamburg on 28 points.

In games that will impact the top of the table as well as the relegation zone the most, Schalke play at Augsburg on Saturday, while Dortmund host Mainz the same day.