In usual circumstances, the first El Clasico of the season has usually meant two of La Liga's biggest clubs fighting it out for a chance to take an early initiative over the other. These are not usual circumstances.
In a European football calendar altered by the coronavirus pandemic, Real Madrid and Barcelona head into their first meeting of the campaign looking to break a loop of negativity in recent times. Both clubs are struggling; the pre-game narrative has been mostly about the gloom surrounding the two institutions in this early phase of the season.
When Real Madrid's strong finish to the last campaign saw them regain La Liga title, it seemed to have belied the criticism the team had faced earlier that season. But here we are in the new campaign, and the club has lost back-to-back games at home, to newly-promoted Cadiz in the league and a coronavirus-hit, under-strength Shakhtar Donetsk side in the Champions League.
Real Madrid have failed to adequately replace Cristiano Ronaldo since his departure in 2018 is hardly surprising because not many would be able to replicate the Portuguese star's goal-scoring feats. But what should worry the Madrid faithful is the team's continued reliance on an aging core group of players – Karim Benzema, Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, among others. The club's struggles without Ramos against Shakhtar was another illustration of how crucial the 34-year-old center-back is to his side.
"I am responsible," said Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane after Wednesday's shock loss. "I am the coach. I have to find the solution."
Pressure will pile on the French great if Barcelona hand Real a third consecutive defeat on Saturday's early kick-off. Real have shown little mercy in sacking decorated coaches in the past, although there is likely to be a bit more patience from the Santiago Bernabeu hierarchy for a club legend who has won three Champions Leagues and two La Liga titles in two coaching stints in Madrid.
Given the situation with their bitter rivals, Barcelona would have started this game as favorites. But the Catalonians have problems of their own. Despite beating Hungarian champions Ferencvaros on Tuesday, Barcelona have been a pale shadow themselves in recent months.
Last season's collapse after the resumption, where they surrendered the league title to Madrid and were humiliated 8-2 by Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals, was followed by a public confrontation between the club's board and its biggest star in Lionel Messi.
The Argentine talisman reluctantly stayed back after declaring his intention to leave in August. But the situation hasn't quite lifted the mood at Camp Nou. In their last two league games, Barca lost at Getafe and drew at home to Sevilla.
Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu has already been a target of fans over his handling of the club. The mess surrounding Messi, who has less than a year left in his contract with the club, has only been compounded by Barcelona's subdued transfer activity this summer. The inability to land a replacement after letting a striker of Luis Suarez's quality go hasn't gone down well with the fans as well.
Gerard Pique underlined the tense situation at the club ahead of Saturday's game by having a go at the club hierarchy over its handling of the Messi affair. "I ask myself: how can it be that the best-ever player to have played the game, who we have been lucky enough to enjoy, wakes up one day and sends a burofax (recorded delivery mail) because he feels like he's not being listened to?" Pique, grandson of former club vice-president Amador Bernabeu, told La Vanguardia newspaper.
"What's going on? Messi deserves everything; the new stadium should be named after him first and then the sponsor. We should preserve our figureheads, not under-appreciate them. It really gets to me."