Less than five months ago, Barcelona's season reached a devastating low after defeat to Real Madrid at the Camp Nou was followed by an embarrassing loss to Rayo Vallecano in Madrid. Ronald Koeman was sacked and the idea of Blaugrana supporters actually looking forward to El Clasico 2022 time seemed entirely preposterous.
Well, with the season's third Clásico on the horizon (the two met in a hugely entertaining Supercopa match in January that Real won 3-2 in extra time), Barça approaches the Santiago Bernabéu as a totally rejuvenated squad.
That defeat to Rayo left Barcelona ninth in the table, but a win in Madrid could, while not exactly igniting a title challenge, light the smallest flicker of hope with Barça moving 12 points back while maintaining a game in hand.
It would almost certainly be too little too late for Xavi's side, but a victory at the Bernabéu would also be hugely symbolic. Real has won four straight LaLiga Clásicos, so a victory over los Blancos at this point in time would be the greatest demonstration of Barça's growth under its new manager, aided by the emergence of young stars like Pedri, Nico González, Gavi and the additions of Ferran Torres, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Adama Traoré in the transfer market.
But if Barcelona's feeling pretty good about itself, Real is feeling even better.
Coming off an incredible "remontada" against PSG in the Champions League, Real isn't banking on emerging players or potentially effective transfers — Los Merengues are the finished product (minus Kylian Mbappé).
With 30 goals and 12 assists in 32 appearances across LaLiga and the UCL, you could argue that Karim Benzema is the best footballer on the planet right now. However, after coming off injured against Mallorca on Monday, it's since been confirmed that Benzema will miss El Clásico.
"We never take risks," Carlo Ancelotti said Saturday. "Tomorrow (Benzema) can't play because he hasn't trained, he feels some discomfort. It's a small injury."
Real now turns to Vinícius Júnior, who's again scroing at the same clip he was earlier in the season, and the Brazilian is still terrorizing defenses off the dribble. He has 16 goals and 10 assists in 34 games.
The Luka Modrić-Toni Kroos-Casemiro midfield has been a marvel all season, like it has been for all time, and the Éder Militão-David Alaba center back pairing takes no prisoners. Real won't be thinking about Barça's threat — they'll try to impose their game for a statement victory.
Either this match marks the breakthrough moment for Xavi's young side or it's another crowning achievement in a period of Real dominance that could end with a remarkable league and UCL double.
El Clasico 2022 Time, Date And Channel
Location: Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, Madrid
Date: Sunday, March 20 | Time: 4:00 p.m. ET
Barcelona Injuries and Suspensions: Ansu Fati (hamstring), Sergi Roberto (hamstring), Samuel Umtiti (toe), Alex Balde (ankle) and Sergiño Dest (hamstring)
Real Madrid Injuries and Suspensions: Karim Benzema (calf) and Ferland Mendy (groin)
Barcelona Predicted Starting XI: Marc-André ter Stegen; Jordi Alba, Gerard Piqué, Ronald Araújo, Dani Alves; Pedri, Sergio Busquets, Gavi; Ferran Torres, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Adama Traoré
Real Madrid Predicted Starting XI: Thibaut Courtois; Marcelo, David Alaba, Éder Militão, Dani Carvajal; Luka Modrić, Casemiro, Toni Kroos; Vini Jr., Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio
El Clasico 2022 Prediction
After playing PSG Wednesday, Real had the better build-up to the match with only a trip to 16th-place Mallorca on Monday (a 3-0 victory). Barça hosted Galatasaray in the Europa League last Thursday, hosted Osasuna last Sunday (4-0 win), went to Istanbul on Thursday for the second leg against Galatasaray (2-1 win) and now travels to Madrid for El Clásico.
There's a lot to like about what's going on in Barcelona, but this is Real's season.
Real Madrid 1 - 0 Barcelona
El Clasico 2021 Score
Real Madrid won the season's first meeting at the Camp Nou 2-1. Alaba opened the scoring in the 32nd minute with his first goal for Real Madrid — a screamer from outside the area that Marc-André ter Stegen could only flap at.
Barcelona had its chances and didn't play poorly, but Lucas Vázquez made it 2-0 Real in the third minute of second half stoppage time. With effectively the last kick of the match, Sergio Agüero — whose since retired because of a heart problem — pulled one back for Barça.