Security concerns overshadow Messi’s Clasico return
MADRID: An unprecedented level of security will be put in place for Real Madrid’s huge clash with Barcelona today in response to the deadly attacks on Paris a week ago. The security threat to what is widely regarded as the biggest game in world football, with an estimated global television audience of 500 million, has even overshadowed the return of Lionel Messi for Barcelona after a twomonth injury layoff.
Spanish government officials have promised a security presence of 2,400 police, stewards and emergency services at the Santiago Bernabeu to form a triple ring of security around the stadium. The Stade de France, where France were hosting Germany, was one of a number of targets struck during the attacks on Friday that left 129 dead and over 350 injured.
Meanwhile, Spain’s friendly against Belgium in Brussels was postponed due to the elevated terror threat and Germany’s meeting with the Netherlands called off by a bomb threat on Tuesday. However, the Spanish authorities insist that there is no reason to believe another late postponement will be required. “It is a shame that people aren’t talking about sport, football or the spectacle, but it is the reality we live in and we can’t ignore it,” said Barca captain Andres Iniesta on Thursday. “We have to try to return to normality.”
On the field, Barca lead Madrid by three points at the top of the table despite being without Messi for the last two months. The Argentine seems certain to feature after taking a full part in training this week, but it is still unknown whether coach Luis Enrique will risk his star from the start or allow him to ease back into action from the bench. “If we can count on Leo from the start our chances are much greater,” added Iniesta. In Messi’s absence, Luis Suarez and Neymar have propelled Barca to five wins in their last six league games and scored all of the European champions’ last 17 league goals.
Benzema back Madrid will be hoping their own muchhyped front three can perform likewise after a slow start to the season provoked by poor form, injuries and off-field problems. Today will be just the third time this season that all of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema start together. Benzema will play for the first time since being charged with complicity to blackmail and conspiring to commit a criminal act in his native France in a case involving a sex tape featuring international teammate Mathieu Valbuena.
Meanwhile, Bale needs a big performance to alleviate the mounting critics of the Welshman’s inability to perform for Madrid in the biggest games. “I feel strong, in shape for this game and ready for the battle,” Bale told Madrid’s website. “I want to keep trying to give my best, to work hard and to help the team win.” Madrid boss Rafael Benitez is hoping to count on a fullyfit squad for the first time this season as goalkeeper Keylor Navas, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo look set to shrug off injuries picked up before the international break.
Dani Carvajal is also expected to replace Danilo at right-back, while Benitez has a big decision over whether to start James Rodriguez after he proved his match fitness by playing 180 minutes for Colombia over the past week. Other than Messi, Barca’s other injury concern is over Ivan Rakitic, who is doubtful with a calf injury. The clash between the top two will favour thirdplaced Atletico Madrid should they manage to win at Real Betis tomorrow. Diego Simeone’s men sit just one point adrift of Real Madrid. — AFP