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(From left) Real Madrid's Rodrygo, Luka Modric, Karim Benzema and Thibaut Courtois attend a training session at the Ciudad Real Madrid training complex in Valdebebas, outskirts of Madrid on the eve of the Spanish league 'El Clasico' match against Barcelona. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: Camp Nou will be the venue for one of the most important matches in the football calendar on Sunday evening when Barcelona, the La Liga leaders, welcome their arch-rivals and second-placed Real Madrid for El Clasico.

This game is crucial for Real, who currently sit nine points behind Barca in the table, and a loss for them would see the home side take a significant step towards winning their first La Liga title since 2019.

Barca have been watching Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid win the La Liga title in the last three seasons, but the Catalan outfit are in a commanding position this season. They have won 21 of their 25 matches, drawing twice, and losing only twice. They have only conceded eight La Liga goals all campaign, which is a stunning record at this stage of proceedings.

Spanish Super Cup

Despite being knocked out of the Europa League by Manchester United in the playoff stage last month, Barca have already lifted the Spanish Super Cup this season and are chasing two more trophies, including the Copa del Rey. However, Real stand in their way of success. They have a 1-0 lead from the first leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final, with the second leg set to take place at Camp Nou at the start of April.

Barca suffered a shock 1-0 defeat to Almeria in the league at the end of February but have won their last two league matches, both 1-0, against Valencia and Athletic Bilbao. They also have the best home record in Spain’s top flight this season, picking up 32 points from 12 matches with a record of 10 wins and two defeats.

Carlo Ancelotti’s Real have work to do and are currently the underdogs in La Liga at this stage of the season. However, a victory on Sunday would cut the gap to six points on the same number of matches (26), which certainly sounds a lot better than 12. Real’s away form this season has been strong, picking up 28 points from 13 matches, while they have dominated the recent league meetings between the two sides, winning five of their last six in Spain’s top flight.

Barca have not beaten Real at Camp Nou in La Liga since October 2018, while Los Blancos were 3-1 winners in the reverse fixture at Bernabeu earlier this season.

The hosts had hoped to have Ousmane Dembele available for this match, but he is still out due to a hamstring issue. Pedri suffered discomfort in training on Friday and has therefore been left out. However, Ronald Araujo is available after missing the clash with Athletic last weekend through suspension, and the Uruguay international will come into the starting side for this match.

Alejandro Balde is expected to be given the nod over Jordi Alba at left-back, while Gavi is likely to be pushed further forward to join Raphinha and Robert Lewandowski in attack.

Hamstring issue

As for Real, David Alaba remains on the sidelines with a hamstring issue, but the Austria international is the away team’s only absentee.

Ancelotti has decisions to make in midfield, and it seems likely that Toni Kroos will be the player to miss out, with Aurelien Tchouameni expected to come back into the side. Nacho should keep hold of his starting role at left-back, with Federico Valverde featuring alongside Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior in the front three for the reigning champions.

Barca’s lack of midweek European fixture should give them an advantage, but Real were impressive against Liverpool and will fancy their chances. They know a defeat would all but end their title hopes and will go for broke. We could be in for a thriller.