By Iain Rogers
MADRID (Reuters) – Tensions will be running higher than ever when Real Madrid host bitter rivals Barcelona for the opening La Liga ‘Clasico’ of the season on Saturday with Europe on high alert following last week’s deadly attacks in Paris.
A simmering dispute between the Madrid government and the regional administration in Barcelona over Catalan independence and a recent allegation — strenuously denied — that an assistant referee came under pressure to favour Real have added to the drama of what is probably the biggest fixture in club soccer.
Leaders and champions Barca, chasing a sixth La Liga title in eight years, take a three-point lead over second-placed Real into the clash at the Bernabeu, where security will be ramped up after the events in the French capital.
A Barca victory would fire them six points clear at the top after 12 matches and increase pressure on Real coach Rafa Benitez, whose first season in charge of the world’s richest club by income is threatening to come off the rails.
Spain’s top sports official has said there is no reason to postpone the ‘Clasico’ following the cancellation of several games since the Paris attacks, including Spain’s friendly against Belgium in Brussels on Tuesday.
However, the government has nonetheless declared the ‘Clasico’ “high-risk”.
Francisco Martinez Vazquez, Spain’s secretary of state for security, said on Wednesday there would be at least 1,000 police, twice as many as usual.
Around 80,000 fans will be packed into Real’s giant arena and some 500 million more will be watching around the world.
“The match will be able to be played with complete normality and we are sure there will be no incidents,” Martinez Vazquez told reporters.
Barca are coming into the game in better shape and talisman Lionel Messi looks likely to return from injury and rejoin in-form South American compatriots Neymar and Luis Suarez in attack.
Argentina captain Messi, the all-time top scorer in ‘Clasicos’ with 21 goals, has not played since injuring a knee at the end of September but returned to training on Monday.
Messi’s great rival Cristiano Ronaldo, by contrast, has been off colour by his high standards and he again failed to spark in Real’s surprise 3-2 defeat at Sevilla in their last outing.
A draw would favour Atletico Madrid, who would climb above Real into second and close to within two points of Barca with a win at Real Betis on Sunday.
(Reporting by Iain Rogers; Editing by Rob Hodgetts)