BARCELONA: A surging Barcelona has overhauled Real Madrid in the Spanish league standings, and the team now has the chance to open up a significant gap in the second "clasico" of the season on Sunday.
Barcelona is on a run of 17 wins in its last 18 games and leads the league by one point, while Madrid is a shadow of the side that ended 2014 on a Spanish record 22-match winning streak that included a 3-1 win over the Catalan club.
Regardless of the teams' contrasting form, one constant will remain: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will again vie to leave their mark on one of the most hotly contested rivalries in soccer.
"We face the match with a lot of respect," Messi said. "Madrid never plays poorly and when they appear to be struggling, they are even more dangerous. They have incredibly talented players, and we have to respect then more than ever."
Barcelona appeared to be on the brink of a breakdown following a loss at Real Sociedad in early January. That was followed by a chaotic week that included the firing of its sport director and president Josep Bartomeu calling for early elections in the offseason.
The team has responded in incredible fashion. Barcelona has reached the final of the Copa del Rey, the quarterfinals of the Champions League, and has passed Madrid in the league.
Madrid has gone the other way. Injuries and tougher competition have transformed the once invincible European champions into a vulnerable side. The team has nine wins, two draws and five losses since the winter break. Madrid will arrive at Camp Nou the better rested team after not having played since last Sunday. But Barcelona remains on a high after a second convincing victory over Manchester City on Wednesday, when it eased into the Champions League quarterfinals for a record eighth straight season.
"We are strengthened by the win (over City)," Barcelona coach Luis Enrique said. "We have the important advantage of playing at home, but in many cases that isn't decisive. To talk about being favorites is risky and pretentious."