Real bank on in-form Ronaldo
The millions of fans around the globe who will tune in to watch Sunday’s ‘Clasico’ in Barcelona could witness the death throes of Real Madrid’s La Liga title challenge in their seventh match of the season.
Defeat at the Nou Camp for Jose Mourinho’s side, who are chasing a second consecutive title after ending Barca’s three-year run as champions, would stretch the Catalan club’s lead over their bitter rivals to 11 points.
While that may seem insignificant compared with the 93 points that will still be available, it is worth noting Barca only dropped 15 and 18 points respectively during the whole of their title-winning campaigns in 2009-10 and 2010-11.
Three times previously Barca have hosted Real with a lead of eight points or more and three times they have gone on to claim the title.
While nobody is writing off Real’s chances of reigniting the championship race, they have been less than impressive in domestic competition, crashing to shock defeats at Getafe and Sevilla and producing a limp draw at home to Valencia.
Leaders Barca, by contrast, have shown some of the fight that was perhaps missing from their performances last term in winning all six of their matches.
They battled back from two down to beat Sevilla 3-2 last weekend and overturned a one-goal deficit to secure a 2-1 triumph at Osasuna at the end of August.
Vilanova has a defensive headache with regular centre backs Carles Puyol (dislocated elbow) and Gerard Pique (foot) sidelined by injury.
Pique has a slim chance of returning but Barca may have to deploy new signing Alex Song at the back alongside Javier Mascherano, a prospect that will have Cristiano Ronaldo and his fellow Real forwards licking their lips in anticipation.
After a slow start to the season, Ronaldo has found scintillating form. His hat-trick in Wednesday’s 4-1 Champions League victory at Ajax Amsterdam took his tally to 12 goals in all competitions, two more than World Player of the Year Lionel Messi of Barcelona.
It was the Portuguese forward’s second treble in four days after he scored three in Sunday’s 5-1 La Liga win at home to promoted Deportivo Coruna while Messi has not found the net in three matches, a worrying drought by his high standards.