BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Even though the season has barely begun, Real Madrid's classic meeting with Barcelona on Sunday is a must-win game for the defending Spanish champion, which visits Camp Nou already trailing the Catalan club by eight points.
Barcelona is perfect through the first six rounds and Tito Vilanova's squad has a chance to mark the club's best league start ever with a victory over its fierce rival.
After its poor start, Madrid has won its last three games, including a 4-1 rout at Ajax in the Champions League on Wednesday.
Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo is in tremendous form having scored back-to-back hat tricks this week to take his season tally in all competitions to 12 goals.
"Scoring three goals is fundamental for me, it boosts my confidence," said Ronaldo. "We are going to have a tough game at Camp Nou, but we believe in our chances and are sure we will get a good result."
The Portugal forward has proven to be particularly effective against Barcelona, scoring in each of their last five meetings.
Barcelona will counter with Lionel Messi, who when not scoring has been the team's most creative playmaker at key moments this campaign.
Messi, who scored a Spanish league record 50 goals last season, has found the back of the net 10 times overall this season. And when defenses hemmed him in the last two games, he responded by setting up a pair of goals for his teammates to secure wins.
Madrid and Barcelona have already played twice this campaign in the Spanish Super Cup. Madrid lost 3-2 at Barcelona but escaped a larger deficit thanks to goalkeeper Victor Valdes' error to gift Angel Di Maria a goal. In the second leg, Madrid then used its best half hour of football against Barcelona in recent memory to establish a lead and held on against 10 men in the second half to claim the title. Madrid has won 88 "clasico" matches to Barcelona's 87.
"The game against Madrid is different from all the rest," said Messi, who has scored a club-high 15 times against Madrid. "The game on Sunday won't be about getting revenge (for the Super Cup), it's about extending our lead over a rival in the standings."