Barca have the edge on Real

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 November, 2004, 12:00am

Frank Rijkaard's side can cement their status as the best team in Spain with victory over their bitter rivals tonight

Surely it doesn't get any better than last weekend's amazing North London derby, but three of Europe's most bitter rivalries promise plenty more thrills and spills this weekend.

Barcelona v Real Madrid is the big match of the weekend, and the Spanish fixture list also features the Basque derby between Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao, while Scotland's Old Firm, Rangers and Celtic, go head to head for the second time in 10 days.

The English Premiership cannot offer any games likely to match the intensity of Arsenal's incredible 5-4 win over Spurs, but there are a couple of top-of-the-table clashes as Chelsea host Bolton and Middlesbrough take on Liverpool. With Manchester United kicking off tonight's TV action, at home to Charlton, it's another exciting programme from across Europe.

Barcelona v Real Madrid may not be a derby in the strict sense of the word, but there is no doubt that it is Spain's biggest rivalry and tonight's match might tell us more about whether the balance of power is swinging again in the Primera Liga.

The result patterns of 'derby' matches fall into several categories, and Barcelona v Real Madrid fits easily into the 'fluctuating fortunes' file. In the late 1990s, when they won the championship two years running, Barcelona were dominating this derby. Since then, however, the tide has turned, with Real Madrid claiming two domestic titles and two Champions Leagues in the new millennium.

In that time Barcelona have won only one out of five at home against their bitter rivals, and last April's win in Madrid was their first in eight attempts overall, dating back 31/2 years. That victory might well have been a sign that the tide has turned again, given the other evidence available.

Real's 2-1 win at Barcelona last December came before Frank Rijkaard's revolution began to take effect at the Nou Camp, and before Carlos Queiroz ran out of ideas in Madrid. By the time the two sides met again at the Bernabeu in April, Barcelona were catching up fast, and now they've overtaken Real.

During 2004, Barcelona have amassed an incredible 77 points from 33 matches - five games fewer than Valencia took to rack up the same total in last season's championship campaign. What's more, Real have taken just 56 points in the same period, only a little better than the sort of form that might leave them battling for a Uefa Cup place if it was repeated over a full league season.

Of course, those stats don't guarantee an easy victory for Barcelona.

Manchester United have declined this year to a similar extent as Real, yet they were still able to end Arsenal's 49-game unbeaten league run last month. Real's recent record at Barcelona (two wins and three draws in their last six visits) merits respect and they are not far behind their big rivals on current form - 16 points compared to Barca's 19 over the last eight games.

Real's apparent revival under Mariano Garcia Remon, who took charge in September, remains largely untested, however, and so does their away form.

They have been mediocre on the road for most of 2004 (at least by their standards), with six wins, three draws and six defeats in the Primera Liga. Again, that's the form of a Uefa Cup outfit, not a team with Champions League aspirations.

There is a slight question mark over Barcelona's home form, as much of their improvement in 2004 can be attributed to their prowess on the road. True, they have won five out of five at home in the league and beat Milan 2-1 in the Champions League at the start of this month, but some of their performances don't rate that highly, particularly the 1-0 win over second-bottom Numancia and the 2-1 victory against Deportivo.

Having said that, Barcelona are a much more solid unit all round than Real, and their win odds seem fair. They should confirm their status as the team to beat in Spain this season.

Spain's other derby this weekend, Real Sociedad v Athletic Bilbao, falls into a different category - high draw ratio. Nine of the last 20 meetings have been draws and, with the teams evenly matched on form this season and struggling for goals, another close game is in prospect. Low goals and Bilbao on the handicap are alternative ways to play this match, based on the long-term statistics.

Also in Spain, two home sides to consider are Atletico Madrid and Real Zaragoza. Atletico aren't high scorers, but they are very strong at home (one of just five teams still unbeaten) and should have no problem against Numancia, who have lost all five away games and managed only one goal.

Zaragoza are another of the unbeaten home sides and they have a great chance to make it six wins out of six when they host bottom club Mallorca. Zaragoza are a very attacking side at home and should overpower Mallorca, who have struggled for goals since the departure of Samuel Eto'o to Barcelona.

Away bankers are hard to find but Valencia and Deportivo, despite their struggles so far this season, are attractive odds for their respective trips to Malaga and Villarreal.

The handicap picks in the English Premiership are both in live games - Portsmouth (v Manchester City) in tonight's late match and Blackburn (v Birmingham) tomorrow. Portsmouth are strong at home again (four wins out of six so far, with their only defeat coming against Everton) and are attractively priced for the win, but the handicap offers a useful safety net.

Blackburn don't appear to be such a safe bet, with only three wins from 17 home games in 2004, but then again Birmingham's away form was just as bad before their surprise 1-0 win at Liverpool two weeks ago. Mark Hughes appears to be having some effect at Blackburn, who have recovered from two heavy defeats by drawing their last three games, and the suspension of Robbie Savage - such a key player for Birmingham - may tip the scales in their favour.

Chelsea v Bolton isn't available on the handicap, but a small stake on the draw looks a good-value way to oppose Chelsea, whose odds are too short as usual.

The other win bet worth having at good odds is Hamburg, even though they host German Bundlesliga leaders Wolfsburg. That game, which is previewed inside, is live on TV tomorrow night.

The Champions League and Uefa Cup resume next week, and two bets stand out at this stage. Monaco, who have an outstanding home record in Europe, have a great chance to take advantage of Liverpool's injury problems up front, while Sparta Prague have performed well enough so far to suggest that they can overcome Fenerbahce.

Best homes: Portsmouth, Barcelona, Zaragoza, Atletico Madrid, Aston Villa.

Best aways: Valencia, Deportivo.

High goals: Portsmouth v Manchester City, Barcelona v Real Madrid.

Low goals: Everton v Fulham, Middlesbrough v Liverpool, Blackburn v Birmingham.


Each week our expert tipster Nick Pulford Nick Pulford suggests his pick of the fixtures to offer the best return-to-risk ratio for a $1,000 bet. This week:

$200 handicap Portsmouth.

$200 win Zaragoza, Atletico Madrid.

$150 win Barcelona.

$150 win Hamburg.

$100 draw Real Sociedad v Athletic Bilbao.