BARCELONA, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Real Madrid looked poised to sweep Barcelona away in La Liga after beating them so comprehensively in the Spanish Super Cup in August yet by the end of Saturday’s ‘Clasico’ they could be a remarkable 14 points behind their bitter rivals.
Coach Zinedine Zidane has overseen Real’s worst run of results in the league in nine seasons and his side go into Saturday’s encounter at the Santiago Bernabeu sitting fourth in the standings, 11 points adrift of Barca albeit having played one game fewer.
It is a scenario few could have foreseen after Real won a Liga and Champions League double last term and began this season so convincingly.
Seemingly the only positive Real will take onto the pitch on Saturday is that they are still world champions after retaining the Club World Cup last weekend with victory against Gremio in the final.
Barca coach Ernesto Valverde looked in a vulnerable position in August after the resounding 5-1 aggregate defeat to Real so soon after succeeding Luis Enrique, especially with Brazil forward Neymar having left for Paris St Germain.
Yet the Spaniard has moulded the team into a highly resilient outfit who are unbeaten in their last 24 games in all competitions.
The Catalans are six points clear of nearest challengers Atletico Madrid, who visit Espanyol on Friday.
Barca may not have the same creative spark as in recent seasons and have on occasion been accused of being boring, but they have developed a tougher edge under former Athletic Bilbao coach Valverde, conceding only seven goals in 16 games.
“After losing the Super Cup we knew that we had to work as hard as ever and all follow Valverde, who I think has started to leave his stamp on the team,” Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen told Spanish newspaper El Pais.
“He has been watching us for a long time and he knew what he needed to do to improve us. That vision has served us well, we are very good defensively and we need to keep that up, or improve it, for the rest of the season so we can stay up there.”
Barca captain Andres Iniesta said his side had erased the humbling 3-1 and 2-0 defeats to Real in the Super Cup from their memories but he does not think his side’s big lead in the standings will have much bearing on the pitch on Saturday.
“That is in the past, we’re in another competition and in a different moment. It’s a completely different game and nothing to do with how we were back then,” Iniesta told Marca.
“I don’t look at the league table before a ‘Clasico’. They are unique games and form has no impact. We know what’s at stake and we’ll try to take an important step towards winning the league.” (Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Toby Davis)