Cristiano Ronaldo key to Real Madrid in must-win clash with Barcelona
Portuguese star must maintain his form after back-to-back hat-tricks as Madrid aim to close gap with their rivals to five points at Nou Camp
Agence France-Presse in Madrid
Real Madrid face Barcelona in a make-or-break El Clasico tomorrow, aided by a resurgent Cristiano Ronaldo but acutely aware that defeat would see them trail their bitter enemies by a massive 11 points.
Ronaldo has hit form at just the right time, netting three times in a 4-1 win at Ajax in the Champions League on Wednesday, following on from his hat-trick in a 5-1 La Liga rout of Deportivo La Coruna last weekend.
The last time Real and Barcelona clashed in the league was April, when Ronaldo scored the decisive goal at the Camp Nou as his side went on to win the league. But this season, Barcelona have begun with ominous intent to reclaim their crown, with six straight victories.
Perhaps the result of basking in their own triumph, Jose Mourinho's team made a stuttering start this season, with just one win from the first four games. But since then, they have clicked into gear and Ronaldo has looked more like his former self.
The Portuguese star had looked moody and introspective, refusing to celebrate some goals with his teammates and declaring himself to be unhappy.
However, his winner against Manchester City in the Champions League last month showed his desire was back. And now he is fully primed to face Barca after his successive hat-tricks.
"I am very happy with the way we are playing, and the victory against Ajax gives us all plenty of confidence, while for me personally to score three is vital for my own confidence," said Ronaldo.
"We will go to the Camp Nou, which is a very difficult stadium, but we have belief in our chances and that we can get a good result," he said. "Barca have a very strong side with strength in depth."
Ronaldo's teammate Xabi Alonso admitted there is no margin for error in the match against Barcelona. "To win will be fantastic, and lose, bad, there is no way of hiding the fact. We are aware of the difference in points, and so obviously we are going out for the victory, but we need to rest and prepare," he said.
Although Barca have a 100 per cent record, they have had injury worries to deal with, especially in defence. And the bad news from their midweek Champions League win over Benfica was that Carles Puyol will be out of action for up to two months with a dislocated elbow.
The talismanic defender was only just returning from a lengthy lay-off and is now back in the treatment room along with fellow centre-half Gerard Pique, so it is likely that Javier Mascherano and Alex Song will line up in the heart of the defence.
Elsewhere, unbeaten duo Atletico Madrid and Malaga go head to head, while high-flying Sevilla and Mallorca - both on 11 points - are against Celta Vigo and Granada, respectively.
At the other end of the table, the situation remains desperate for Espanyol, who have just one point and are away to Valladolid. Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna, the two teams immediately above Espanyol, face each other.