Barcelona returns to Bernabeu with title race on the line
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MADRID — The last time Barcelona played at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium it gave Real Madrid a 4-0 thrashing that left the hosts in crisis and set the Catalan club on track to winning its second straight Spanish league title.
That stunning result eventually led to the replacement of coach Rafa Benitez by Zinedine Zidane, the former Madrid and France great who had never held a head-coaching job.
The teams meet again at the Bernabeu this weekend with Zidane on the verge of leading Madrid to its first league title since 2012, and Barcelona reeling in an up-and-down season that will be the last for coach Luis Enrique.
Sunday's "clasico" could be decisive, with Madrid looking to virtually secure the title and Barcelona trying to keep alive its hopes of winning the league for a third straight time.
A home victory would see Madrid increase its lead to six points over second-placed Barcelona, with the leaders also having a game in hand.
Another triumph by Barcelona at the Bernabeu would leave the teams tied on points but with Barca top on the head-to-head tiebreaker with five games left.
Victory would also boost Barcelona's confidence following some poor results and its disappointing elimination to Juventus in the quarterfinals of the Champions League this week.
"We are humans, certainly it will somehow affect us," Barcelona defender Gerard Pique said after the 0-0 draw against the Italian champion on Wednesday, which was nowhere near enough to overturn the 3-0 first-leg loss in Italy. "But we have to make sure that it affects us as little as possible."
Barcelona has won two of the last three games against Madrid at the Bernabeu. Its other recent victory there was a 4-3 result in the league in 2014.
"We will go to the Bernabeu to compete and to try to win," Pique said. "In the last few years we have been achieving good results there. We are not going through our best moment but we can still win."
Barcelona has won only two of its last five games, with losses to Juventus in the Champions League and Malaga in La Liga.
Real Madrid has won six of its last seven league games, with the only setback a 1-1 home draw against city rival Atletico Madrid two rounds ago.
Zidane's team is boosted by the triumph over Bayern Munich in the Champions League on Tuesday, when Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat trick in a 4-2 extra-time win at the Bernabeu to give Madrid a 6-3 aggregate win and a spot in the competition's semifinals for the seventh straight time. The Spanish powerhouse is trying to become the first team to successfully defend the European title since the competition's new format was created in 1992.
"We have another great game ahead of us on Sunday," Madrid midfielder Luka Modric said. "A victory would be very important for us in the title race ... Hopefully we will have the same atmosphere that we had (against Bayern)."
Madrid will likely have the return of forward Gareth Bale, who missed the game against Bayern because of a muscle injury.
Barcelona will be without Neymar, who was suspended three games after sarcastically applauding an assistant referee in the loss to Malaga in the league two weeks ago.
"We will go to Madrid to try to do our best. We need the three points," Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic said. "If we can repeat the 4-0, even better."
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