Barcelona’s players celebrate after scoring the opener during the Spanish league football match Athletic Club Bilbao vs FC Barcelona at the San Mames stadium in Bilbao on August 28, 2016.
ANDER GILLENEA / AFP
Barcelona coach Luis Enrique believes his side remain the team to beat in Spain but admits that victory over leaders Real Madrid in El Clasico on Saturday is paramount to their title chances.
With millions watching around the world Madrid travel into enemy territory in Catalonia on the back of a 32-game unbeaten run and boast a six-point lead over Barcelona at the top of La Liga.
However, despite describing Barca’s last league performance in a 1-1 draw at Real Sociedad as the worst of his three-season tenure, Enrique insists the reigning champions have the talent to be considered the best team in the world.
“There are good teams at a high level but none of them are better than us. That is what makes me optimistic,” he said on Friday.
Barca received a huge injury boost on Friday when captain Andres Iniesta was cleared to make his return after six weeks out with a knee injury.
“Iniesta is our captain and a reference point for Barca’s style,” said Enrique.
“It is great news for the person that he is and what he represents as captain.”
Defenders Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba also look set to shrug off injuries to start and Enrique may be able to name his strongest side for the first time since September.
Injuries have been a key factor in the Catalans’ worst league start for nine years, but midfielder Arda Turan also claimed they remain the world’s best once they hit top form.
“Barca are the best team and when we play like we know how, we are unstoppable,” the Turkish international told Barca TV.
“I have a very good feeling ahead of the Clasico.”
– Madrid high in confidence –
Madrid, under the guidance of Zinedine Zidane, might be in red-hot form but the former midfield general wants to see his side perform more like they did in swatting aside Atletico Madrid 3-0 two weeks ago than on their last trip to the Camp Nou — when they registered a shock 2-1 win in April.
“Tomorrow will be totally different,” said the Frenchman.
“Last term we went there with our buttocks clenched, I apologise for the language, but we need to have the same mentality.
“I want us to be just as prepared as we were last year, but play like we are now.”
Real are not so lucky on the injury front as Gareth Bale and Toni Kroos remain sidelined.
However, the visitors can rely on an on-form Cristiano Ronaldo fresh from scoring five times in his last two outings.
“He is very important for the rest of the team because he has tremendous energy,” Zidane added.
“He still has the hunger to win and that is good for the group.”
The biggest match in club football, which kicks off at 1515 GMT, is expected to capture an audience of 650 million people worldwide, according to figures released by La Liga.
“I am not going to say it is just another game, it is a very important match, it has a special meaning…. a special taste,” Real president Florentino Perez told AFP.
“No one hides that is has a worldwide impact, it is seen by millions of people across the world, like the World cup final.”
Barca defender Javier Mascherano also made little attempt to play down the significance of the clash.
“Despite there being just three points at stake, like in the rest of the matches, the attention before and after the game makes it a special match,” the Argentine told Barca TV.