Embattled Barça pin hopes on captain

The first El Clásico of the season kicks off when Barcelona meet Real Madrid on Saturday, and for two players at opposite ends of their careers this edition of the most fervent rivalry in world football promises to determine who enjoys bragging rights.

Barcelona’s inspirational captain, Andrés Iniesta, returned to training last Friday after damaging knee ligaments last month. With Barca six points off La Liga pacesetters Real, and suffering a string of poor results, much faith is being put in the talismanic player’s ability to lift his team’s fortunes.

Then there’s Real Madrid winger James Rodriguez, the golden boy of Colombian football, who has struggled to establish himself at the club since he burst into the limelight at the 2014 World Cup. Yet, with Toni Kroos, Alvaro Morata and Gareth Bale all out until next year with injuries, the door has opened for the 25-year-old winger to try to win over coach Zinedine Zidane.

Rodriguez will be hoping to get more minutes under his belt during Saturday’s Clásico after his career in Madrid started brightly but faded.

He came under scrutiny last Saturday after failing at a shot on goal during his third Liga start of the season in the 2-1 win at Sporting Gijon, but Zidane defended him.

“I don’t consider him to be disinterested,” he said. “He played well, as did the others. He may lack a bit of rhythm, but I’m happy that he got some playing time.”

Having won the Golden Boot as the World Cup’s top scorer with six goals, the winger secured a dream €80‑million ($84.71‑million) move to the Spanish giants from AS Monaco.

He shone in his first season under Carlo Ancelotti, starting 46 games in all competitions, with 17 goals and 17 assists, as he began to repay some of his transfer fee.

Since the Italian’s departure, however, Rodriguez has slumped from first choice at the Bernabéu stadium to forgotten man.

In 2015-2016, under Rafael Benitez and his replacement, Zidane, Rodriguez made 21 starts in all competitions, with eight goals and 10 assists, although a thigh injury limited his opportunities.

He was the subject of transfer speculation in the close season but, under contract until June 2020, stayed put.

Rodriguez’s experience at Real is the opposite to his time at Monaco, where he endured a slow start in the 2013-2014 campaign, having joined the side after three seasons at Porto.

He eventually scored nine goals with 12 assists to help Monaco finish runners-up to Paris Saint-Germain in France’s Ligue 1.

At Real, the fierce competition did not seem to affect him in his first season but Zidane has Casemiro, Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio ahead of him in the pecking order.

He is only 20th in minutes played for Real this season with 570, having made 12 appearances in all competitions and scoring once, with

six assists. Saturday’s game at the Nou Camp would be a good time to shine.

Meanwhile, Barcelona coach Luis Enrique is confident that Iniesta will be given the all-clear by doctors to play this Saturday.

“He is fit and he has been training with us. He is available for selection,” Enrique said on Tuesday.

The Spain international missed Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Real Sociedad, a result that left Barcelona six points adrift of La Liga leaders Real Madrid, who are unbeaten in 31 games in all competitions.

Iniesta did not travel to Alicante for the team’s King’s Cup match against Hercules on Wednesday because of a ban. But had he, said Enrique, “he would have had minutes”.

Sunday’s result in San Sebastian was Barcelona’s second successive draw in La Liga.

“It’s obvious that we need to improve, that we need more consistency, but I don’t see any signs to worry me too much,” Enrique said.

“The team is well and we got a point at La Real. We are still favourites to win all the titles but it’s clear that we have to improve.

“We, the players and I, are aware of that and are the first to admit that.

We’ve had good games but we’ve lacked consistency, as the results show. But I wouldn’t exaggerate.

“Remember that in my first year [2014-2015], the press also exaggerated with our results and we went on to win the treble [La Liga, King’s Cup and the Champions League].” 

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