There is but a sliver of light between Barca from Real as both are even on points and just a goal separates them. El Clasico today has the look and feel of a Cup final. The Bernabeu is already a hotbed of arriving fans from Spain and elsewhere. Tickets are going at 1000 euros and even upto 3000 euros.
This season is now just about two teams, a exposing a chasm between them and the rest of the Liga.
At the Camp Nou, Ibrahimovic's goal served up delectably by Dani Alves won them the first round. He is not going to be there for the return but Messi's performance against Arsenal made sure that he might not be missed at all.
In many ways, this is Real's match to lose. Their exit from the Copa and the Champions League has left Pellegrini with a simple equation. Win the Liga. A loss at the Bernabeu and he walks into a cul de sac. A win against Barca can be the fog lifter. It will be massive.
"I do not fear Barcelona", reiterates Pellegrini, "the same way saying we are champions in the event of a victory would be a big mistake. The league does not end today. I predict a very open game."
Barca has given up just 19 goals given up, the best in the league so far. It should not come as a surprise given their natural born right to retaining the ball.
Pellegrini's options for stopping Messi could include giving more defensive heft including Marcelo and sacrificing Esteban Granero at central midfield. Pep Guardiola is missing Eric Abidal but the free ranging Maxwell down the left could run into Sergio Ramos, back from suspension. Pellegrini is missing Kaka with a calf injury but Xabi Alonso returns to provide his glue as holding midfielder.
Real's attack will rely on its counterattacking strength and set pieces to break Barca's midfield advantage. About 80% of Barca's attack goes through Messi but Ronaldo remains more efficient with his possession and has more shots on goal. Unlike Barca who have had to do with Henry and Pedro at various occasions, Gonzalo Higuain provides the Portugese with the steadiness up front and with his 24 goals proves to be the perfect strike partner.
The Bernabeu has been a fortress and Real has won 15 games in a row. The Blaugrana have never won two games in a row against Real. However, given the stratospheric transfer fees on their star cast and just the one title to look forward to, all the pressure is on the Merengues. This what Florentino Perez assembled his present version of the Galacticos: to deliver on such momentous occasions. So far they have failed to do so.