Barcelona’s players and fans will pay tribute to club legend Johan Cruyff in an emotional El Clasico clash with Real Madrid on Saturday with Barca coach Luis Enrique promising a spectacle the Dutch master would approve of.
A crowd of over 90,000 will hold aloft a pre-match display reading “Thank you Johan” with Barca’s players to carry the same message on their shirts in the Catalan giants’ first game since former player and coach Cruyff passed away last week at the age of 68.
“I am sure that what Cruyff would want more than any homage is that we win thanks to good football, putting on a spectacle and deserving it on the pitch,” Luis Enrique said on Friday.
Barca head into the game looking to extend their remarkable unbeaten streak to 40 games in all competitions.
That run has allowed Luis Enrique’s men to open up a nine-point lead over closest challengers Atletico Madrid with Real a further point behind in third and just eight games to play.
A 4-0 thrashing of Madrid in the only previous meeting between the sides this season in November put Barca well on track for a sixth title in eight seasons.
And Luis Enrique admitted that another win against their eternal rivals would prove a knockout blow to Real’s title ambitions.
“If we win Atletico would be the only rival in the fight for the title,” he added.
Real travel to Catalonia on the back of five consecutive wins themselves, raising hopes that coach Zinedine Zidane can rescue a forlorn campaign with a good end to the season, culminating in delivering the club’s 11th European Cup.
‘Most beautiful thing’
Zidane enjoyed plenty of success as a Madrid player at the Camp Nou -- most memorably scoring the opening goal with an imperious lob in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final in 2002.
“Clasicos are the most beautiful thing in football for a player,” said the Frenchman.
“Now I am going to live it as a coach. It is the first, but I am very happy and will enjoy it.”
However, stopping this Barca is a much tougher task for Zidane the coach than the player over a decade ago with the European champions bearing down on a second consecutive treble of Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League.
Barca’s front three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar have combined for 107 goals already this season, whilst Messi is just one off 500 for club and country in his career.
“It is a figure from another galaxy. Not even including goals in training would many players, including myself, get anywhere near that number,” added Luis Enrique.
Barca’s Jeremy Mathieu and Madrid’s Raphael Varane were the only casualties from the club’s international duties in midweek with both French centre-backs picking up injuries in Les Blues’ 4-2 win over Russia on Tuesday.
Both coaches will therefore be able to name their preferred starting line-ups with both also refusing to countenance resting players ahead of arguably more pressing Champions League quarter-finals in midweek.
Tiredness could play a factor, in particular for Barca with all of Messi, Suarez, Neymar, Javier Mascherano and Dani Alves having played in World Cup qualifiers in South America over the past week.
Yet, Luis Enrique is hopeful that adrenalin will ensure his stars aren’t affected.
“These type of games generate energy in players. It doesn’t worry me at all,” he said.