Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde has said the absence of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in a Clasico for the first time in 11 years takes none of the gloss away from Sunday’s match.
Ronaldo left Madrid in the summer to join Juventus, and Messi fractured a bone in his arm last weekend against Sevilla, ruling him out for three weeks.
Messi and Ronaldo’s rivalry has come to define the fixture so much over the last decade that it was suggested to Valverde this weekend’s meeting between the two sides has an underwhelming feel to it.
“No, it won’t be any less of a Clasico without them,” Valverde said. “The Clasico existed before Messi and Cristiano. In fact, before there were pigs’ heads flying [at Luis Figo, in 2002], there was tension. The Clasico is always the Clasico.”
Madrid have won just one of their last six games in all competitions and are without a win in La Liga since they beat Espanyol on Sept. 22, a run spanning four games.
As a result, coach Julen Lopetegui goes into the Clasico with his job under threat, but Valverde expects a reaction from Madrid, who are only four points behind league leaders Barca despite their poor form.
“We don’t focus too much on [stories that Madrid are in crisis],” Valverde said. “We focus on the rival, of course, but on what they can do. They can do damage because they’re a great team with great players. Good players always appear beyond any crisis.
“When Madrid are hurting, that’s when they’re at their most dangerous. I expect the best Madrid.
“I don’t think they’ve stopped dominating games. They played well earlier in the season, even if they’re on a bad run now in terms of results.
“They’re a team that is creating chances. Maybe they’re not being effective with those opportunities but the other day against Levante they had 10 clear chances. It’s something I am cautious about.”
As well as Messi, Valverde is also missing centre-backs Samuel Umtiti and Thomas Vermaelen through injury.
Sergi Samper and Carles Alena are the only other players not named in the 19-man squad for the game.
Midfielder Rafinha took Messi’s place in midweek against Inter Milan and Valverde said he already knows his team for Madrid’s visit, although he would not confirm if it would be the same side which beat the Italians 2-0.
“I have decided on my side but I won’t say what it will be,” Valverde said. “We have to be recognisable in the way we play, keeping the ball. That is what makes us strong. We are solid with or without Messi.
“Being a unit is what helped us win the league last season. We have to keep doing that, in defence and in attack.
“The Clasico is played from many points of view: from a tactical point of view, from an emotional one. We come into the game on the back of two good matches and it’s the culmination of an important week.
“We want to do well. We know what’s at stake and we have to focus on playing our game.”