Barcelona braced for mass protests as supporters of Catalan independence target el clasico

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Barcelona v Real Madrid, 11pm UAE

Match is on BeIN Sports

With mass protests led by supporters of Catalan independence planned on the streets around Camp Nou before Wednesday’s clasico, what happens off the pitch could dominate the headlines.

Police are taking exceptional measures, with 3,000 officers set to work around the game, but there’s little they can do so prevent tens of thousands of people taking to the streets. Protesters know it will make headlines around the globe, especially if the game is postponed for a second time after the match was originally scheduled for October 26. That match was postponed at a time of high tension around the sentencing of Catalan political prisoners. Weeks of protests followed on the streets of Barcelona and though the situation has calmed, protesters have long seen the clasico as a place to gather and have their voice heard.

Huge banners in English stating that "Catalonia is not Spain" have long been unfurled before previous clasico matches, while the 17th minute of each half of every Barcelona home game is met by cries of "independence" from many – but far from all – in Europe’s biggest football stadium.

Journalists have been advised to arrive hours before the game while there are fears of a pitch invasion.

The two teams will stay at the same hotel, which is only 200 metres from Camp Nou, and travel together to the stadium earlier than usual. In 2017, a game between Barca and Las Palmas was played behind closed doors after a day of political tension in Catalonia, but the clasico is very different. Supporters from around the world fly in to attend the games.

“I’m not worried about anything. I’m just happy. All of us, not just me, but I’m here to tell you about it,” said Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane.

The last thing the game needs is more controversy around VAR after Barca felt a decision had gone against them in Saturday’s epic 2-2 draw at Real Sociedad. The club were so outraged that they contacted the Spanish Football Federation chief stating that they would file a formal complaint to question how technology is being used and if all clubs are being treated the same. The margin for getting it wrong in the highly-charged clasico is non-existent.

The pair are first and second in La Liga on 35 points after 16 games. Despite Barca already losing three times, both have a game in hand on the chasing pack with Sevilla closest on 31 points. It’s looking like one of the big two for the title yet again, but neither have really impressed this season. For Barca, summer signing Antoine Griezmann has underwhelmed. There’s concern that Sergio Busquets’ level is diminishing after 12 years of excellence.

Frenkie de Jong has done well since his summer move from Ajax. “There’s a lot more tension this game than last season because the gap in points between both teams was bigger last year,” said the Dutch midfielder.

Ansu Fati, 17, excites with his performances off the bench. Lionel Messi remains the best player in the world, the man capable of deciding vital games, as he did when Barca travelled to Atletico Madrid at the start of the month. Messi’s 86th-minute goal left Atletico boss Diego Simeone applauding and cursing at the same time.

Barcelona supporters hold placards reading "Spain, sit and talk" and wave Catalan pro-independence "Estelada" flags during a Champions League match. AFP

Messi has more goals (26) and assists (14) than any other player in clasico history. His 12 league goals so far this term put him joint top with Madrid’s Karim Benzema, a consistently top-level striker who is more important to his team since Cristiano Ronaldo left and Gareth Bale fell from favour. Bale, as Zidane reminded reporters, though, is the ultimate big-game player and is fit to play against Barcelona having trained with the squad on Tuesday.

No other Madrid player is in the top scorers’ chart while Luis Suarez’s nine league goals and Griezmann’s six at least put them on the Pichichi chart. Barcelona’s 43 goals in 16 Liga games is 10 more than Madrid, though Zidane’s side have conceded only 12 to the Catalans’ 20.

The excitement in Spain around Monday's Champions League draw, which paired Real Madrid and Manchester City, Atletico and Liverpool, Barca and Napoli, Valencia and Atalanta will fade as the first clasico of the season becomes the focus.

Updated: December 17, 2019 06:48 PM

MATCH INFO

Barcelona v Real Madrid, 11pm UAE

Match is on BeIN Sports

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