The Blancos have improved significantly in recent months but their Catalan rivals have a genius within their ranks who shows no signs of slowing down
After two years of total domestic collapse, Real Madrid are finally giving the title race a proper shot, but Lionel Messi stands in their way.
In the past two seasons, the Blancos have finished third, 17 and 19 points behind their bitter rivals.
This time around, though, Madrid are right on Barcelona’s heels, just two points behind the Catalans going into the winter break.
Zinedine Zidane’s side drew 0-0 at Athletic Club on Sunday night – their second scoreless game in a row after Wednesday’s Clasico – and have only scored one goal in their last three games.
By contrast, Barca know that whenever they are in a hole they can rely on one man to dig them out – Messi.
The Argentine forward was on target again as Barcelona thrashed Alaves 4-1 on Saturday to move clear at the top after weeks of parity, with the Catalans going into the Christmas break on 39 points after 18 games.
Two points is a slender advantage but this season, with the Blaugrana and the Blancos so closely matched, it could prove crucial.
If there is a difference between the two sides, it is Messi. The Argentine scored his 50th goal of the calendar year against Alaves, the sixth consecutive year he’s hit the half-century mark.
Of course, Madrid had a man who could come close to Messi in terms of pure numbers, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure to Juventus last summer hit them hard.
This was the first complete calendar year they have been without the Portuguese striker since 2010 and the impact is laid bare in the statistics.
In 2019, Real Madrid scored 100 goals. The lowest total in the previous nine years was 130 in 2010, followed by 140 in 2015. The highest was 178 in 2014.
“You’re talking about a guy who scores 40 to 50 goals a year. Of course you’re going to miss him,” Thibaut Courtois admitted after Madrid’s frustrating draw with Athletic.
Despite their problems in front of goal, though, the feelings at the club are largely positive.
Zidane has the team playing good football and they seem far more in control of matches than at any point last season.
Madrid now dominate games, and were the better side in the Clasico but were just unable to turn that into goals.
Courtois has improved greatly and now looks solid between the sticks. The defence is not as leaky as it was last year, even if they still ride their luck at times.
Fede Valverde has reignited a midfield that lost its way last season, while Toni Kroos and Casemiro also look reinvigorated.
Luka Modric has struggled but in recent weeks seems to be finding some form, and Karim Benzema has maintained his superb form.
The French striker, with 12 goals, leads the scoring charts in Spain – with one exception, Messi, on 13.
However, when Benzema is shackled, as Athletic managed, the responsibility to score falls elsewhere.
Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior aren’t consistent, Gareth Bale is in and out of the side, and Luka Jovic hasn’t been given a serious run in the team.
Madrid’s star summer signing, Eden Hazard, is the man who must fire the bullets, but he has been beset by injury and fitness concerns since arriving.
Only when he is back fit and in form do Madrid have an attacking force that can settle games like the clash against Athletic.
By contrast, Barcelona aren’t playing well. Fans were left feeling uncomfortable after the Clasico and coach Ernesto Valverde is often questioned about the team’s playing style.
It says something about the two teams’ performances over the past few years that Barcelona can be top of the table and extremely self-critical, while Madrid are second and largely happy.
But mainly, it speaks about Messi. His 13 goals have all come in the last couple of months, having missed the start of the season through injury.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Frenkie de Jong have also impressed but Messi is head and shoulders above the rest.
Antoine Griezmann is slowly clicking into place too, it seems, and his link-up work with Barcelona’s No.10 was better against Alaves than in any game so far.
The French forward has also taken on the mantle of the ‘can opener’, scoring Barcelona’s first goal in six matches, including the wins over Alaves and Real Sociedad recently.
With Messi on their side, a two-point lead and eight of the last 11 titles, Barcelona are favourites to go on and lift the trophy, but this year Madrid are making sure they have a fight on their hands.