Table-toppers Real head to second-placed Barcelona in yet another mouth-watering El Classico

Barcelona v Real Madrid, Premier League, November 29, 2009

Barcelona 3/4; Draw 13/5; Real Madrid 3/1

Life should be fantastic for Real Madrid fans at the moment.

Last weekend Real Madrid returned to the top of the La Liga table after edging past Racing Santander 1-0 on Saturday, while Barcelona could only draw 1-1 at Athletic Bilbao. That saw Los Blancos leapfrog their Catalan rivals, taking a 1-nil lead into El Classico.

That Real managed to be ahead of Barca at this stage of the season is no small matter. After all, this is no ordinary Barcelona side, but rather last season’s European and domestic treble winners who happily destroyed all and every team they faced just several months ago.

Throw in the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo (6/4 to score, 11/2 to score first) has been missing for over half of Madrid’s league fixtures, combined with a few well worn cliches about Rome not being built in a day, and you’d think that everyone in Madrid would be dancing from the rooftops with Manuel Pellegrini’s progress so far this season.

In fact, Pellegrini has led this Madrid side to, statistically, one of their best-ever starts to a Spanish league season. Yet despite that, the former Villarreal coach has found himself dangerously close to the Bernabeu trap door on more than one occasion, particularly following Real’s humiliating Copa del Rey exit to minnows Alcorcon.

The problem revolves around the fact that while Real may be picking up the points in the league, their manner of performances is not satisfying the locals. For an outlay of 270 million euros last summer, champagne football is not so much expected, but demanded.

In the quest to placate the Madrid fans, the return of Ronaldo is vital. The world’s most expensive footballer looked in good form in his cameo comeback against FC Zurich in the Champions League after two long months on the sidelines.

With CR9 back in the attack, reports suggest that Raul (8/1 to score last) and Gonzalo Higuain (7/1 to score last) will start the match with Barca on the bench, with Karim Benzema (5/1 to score & Real win) deployed as the visitors’ sole striker. Such a decision by Pellegrini will not be without controversy; Raul is still adored by many Madristas as the symbol of their club, while Higuain has been in fantastic form of late, scored four goals in his last three league games and also bagged the only goal against Zurich on Wednesday night.

Further back, Xabi Alonso (7/1 to score) and Lassana Diarra should continue to be deployed in the holding roles in midfield, while Royston Drenthe (12/1 to score) and either Sergio Ramos or Esteban Granero will be asked to provide width on the left and right sides of the pitch, respectively, with Kaka (7/1 to score & Real win) handed license to play “in the hole.”

The only major headache for Real concerns defender Raul Albiol, who twisted knee ligaments against FC Zurich, with Ezequiel Garay ready to step in to the breach at the heart of the Madrid defence alongside Pepe.

Barcelona are sweating on the fitness of star strikers Lionel Messi (7/4 to score) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (5/4 to score) after both forwards missed Tuesday’s crucial 2-nil Champions League defeat of Inter Milan with thigh strains.

Yet, even without Messi and Ibrahimovic, Barcelona dominated Jose Mourinho’s men at a canter, with the spellbinding midfield duo of Xavi Hernandez (8/1 to score & Barca win) and Andres Iniesta masterfully pulling the strings in the centre of the pitch for the Catalans.

Special mention should also be made for the midweek performance of young striker Pedro Rodriguez (11/1 to score first & Barca win); the 22-year-old scored a lovely goal, crafted a number of good crosses and adding to his burgeoning reputation as a future star of Catalonia.

Elsewhere on the injury front, Yaya Toure has given Barca a boost by returning to full training after recovering from the H1N1 virus. That positive though was balanced out by Dani Alves’ absence from training at the end of the week after the marauding Brazilian right-back received treatment for a knock that he suffered to his ankle against Inter.

Real have lost only once so far this season, away to Sevilla last month, but have nine wins from 11 and will be keen to erase the memory of their last meeting with Barca in May, when they were humiliated 6-2 at the Bernabeu. Pellegrini’s side though are still a work in progress and if Barcelona produce a performance even close to anything like their best, they still have a long way to go to be at the level of their Catalan rivals as a collective unit.

101predicts: Barcelona 3 – Real Madrid 2 (16/1)

Barcelona 3/4; Draw 13/5; Real Madrid 3/1

Full match odds here.