For the money Barcelona spent on him, Neymar hasn’t exactly set Camp Nou alight as of yet.
The Brazilian international has just seven goals in 20 appearances so far, and has received criticism in some quarters for failing to live up to his excessive price tag.
However, at 22, Neymar has plenty of time to prove his doubters wrong, and making an impact tonight, as he did in the reverse fixture, would go some way towards achieving that.
His coach, Gerardo Martino, is one of those who has defended the star in the wake of criticism, especially of his recent Champions League displays.
“Firstly, I think he played very well against Manchester City in the second leg and, secondly, I will reaffirm what I have said many times that Neymar is one of the top five players in the world,” Martino said.
“I don’t need to see one match, half a match, nor even 10 matches to confirm the qualities that he has. I don’t think it will be long before people stop talking about him like just another player because he isn’t.”
2. Bale confidence could be key to hosts’ hopes
Gareth Bale endured a difficult start to life at Real Madrid, owing to a number of niggling injuries, while former president Ramon Calderon has claimed the player is burdened by his £86million price tag.
Bale’s slow start in La Liga this season was epitomised by his display when Barca and Real met back in October, as the Welsh star produced a thoroughly ineffectual performance.
However, since then, the former Spurs man has improved immeasurably, belatedly adapting to Spanish football — indeed, Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo currently have 76 goals between them in all competitions this season, which is as telling a measure as any of their phenomenal combined prowess.
The 24-year-old has thus been an important part of Real’s excellent form of late, and was particularly prominent in their recent 9-2 aggregate destruction of Schalke in the Champions League.
Consequently, Real coach Carlo Ancelotti has echoed these sentiments in the lead up to the big game.
“He is in good shape. His physical condition is very important for him and I am sure he will play very well,” said the Italian.
“He is in really good condition and we are very happy with him. He had some problems at the start of the season but now he is looking good and we hope that will continue until the end of the season.”
Moreover, a strong performance from Bale tonight will consolidate suggestions that he is already starting to repay the vast millions that Madrid have spent on him.
3. Will Messi dominate yet again?
(Barcelona’s Lionel Messi has been in sparkling form of late)
Having been the victim of regular injury problems this season, some critics predictably speculated as to whether Lionel Messi was already on the way down in his career at just 26.
While he was slow to regain his fitness initially and his displays naturally suffered as a result, the Argentinian star has been in fine form of late, scoring a hat-trick in their 7-0 thrashing of Osasuna, and becoming Barca’s all-time top scorer in the process.
The four-time Ballon d’Or winner was also the key figure as the Spanish side outclassed Man City in the Champions League, beating them 4-1 on aggregate with Messi scoring in both legs of the tie.
Barcelona are far from a one-man team of course, but stopping the masterful Messi will surely significantly enhance Madrid’s chances today.
4. Can Real build on momentum?
Real Madrid have looked virtually unstoppable in recent games, winning 19 of their last 21 in all competitions.
In total, they have lost just twice in 28 league matches, winning 22 and drawing four.
Without exception, their stars are in excellent form, with Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale all living up to their heady reputations since the beginning of the campaign.
It is therefore no surprise that Real are odds-on favourites to win the Spanish league, while they are second only to Bayern Munich in most people’s Champions League tips, with their accomplished recent defeat of Schalke doing little to quell such expectations.
Quite simply therefore, there are few if any teams in the world currently playing better football than Carlo Ancelotti’s side.
5. Win or bust for Barca
With ten games left in La Liga, Barcelona are four points behind Real Madrid and one behind Atletico.
As the top-three teams rarely drop points, it is almost impossible to imagine Gerardo Martino’s team recovering a seven-point deficit should they lose today, while even retrieving a four-point margin (if the game ends in a draw) seems improbable at this stage, given how imperious Real have looked recently.
Consequently, even Martino admits today’s game at the Bernabeu is effectively a must-win encounter.
“I think it is probably the last chance we will have because after this game there are only nine games left and it is not the same thing to come back from one point behind to four or seven,” he admitted.
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