For many, the biggest game in football at the moment is not the Champions League or World Cup finals but the two (minimum) games between Barcelona of Catalunya and Real Madrid of Castille. The game bears the huge weight of history on the shoulders of both teams and in many ways has grown legs and become something much larger than the sum of its parts.
For a start, it is after all just another football game played between two teams. But to the fans of both teams and to the millions of others who will tune in this Sunday evening to the game from the Camp Nou it is so much more. You have of course the large history between the teams, the most successful in Spain. During the reign of General Franco, Catalunya and the rights of non-Spanish speaking minorities were severely curtailed and Real Madrid were viewed by many to have benefited from the Franco regime’s favor with financial assistance among other things. Further, in Catalunya, with the Franco regime cracking down on Catalan culture and language among other things, FC Barcelona became the focus for many as a way to express their opposition against the Franco regime and it’s Castillian-centric vision of Spain.
Fast forward to this century and the rivalry has somewhat warped into a ‘Galacticos’ v ‘La Masia’ battle. The former being the policy of Madrid President Florentino Perez to recruit one football superstar per annum and integrate him into a team. This started with the poaching of Luis Figo from Barcelona and continued with the purchases of Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo (the original one), David Beckham and Michael Owen. The culmination of this policy saw Madrid win the Champions League final in Glasgow with what I believe to be the greatest goal ever seen in a CL final from Zizou, however, the wheels came off this strategy by making a number of strategically fatal sales, most notably that of Claude Makelele to Chelsea, someone Claudio Ranieiri said was the first player he would ever write on to his team sheet before every game, thus showing up the lack or ability to defend against better organised teams.
Barcelona have developed a very different strategy from others which started when Johan Cruyff returned to manage the team in 1988. Having played for the infamous Ajax squad of the 70s, he was a pupil and now teacher of ‘Total Football’ and he imparted his knowledge to a raft of young, talented and hard working men such as Josi Mari Bakero, Txiki Begiristain, Romario, Gheorghe Hagi and Josep (‘Pep’) Guardiola. With his squad Cruyff won Barcelona’s first European Cup in Wembley against Sampdoria in 1992 when Ronald Koeman smashed a free kick in during the dying moments of the game.
Since then, the philosophy instilled at La Masia has been taken up by every team since and has allowed a new kind of total football to develop, one were the team is usually completely dominant in possession against there opponents and will quite literally pass them to death. This style is now known as ‘tiki taka’ and was originally used as an insult by Javier Clemente to note the lack of direct play from Barcelona and others who passed the ball frequently, often very short distances.
Barcelona have subsequently won the Champions League some 3 times this century, once with Frank Rijkaard at the helm and twice with Pep Guardiola, the first of which was the historic treble winning squad. They have what is the undisputed world’s best player at the moment, perhaps even of all time with Lionel Messi who has been scoring goals for fun for years now. Together with Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro and Cesc Fabregas they are formidable like no other team. They have defeated Benfica in Lisbon on Tuesday night 2-0 and came from 2-1 down to defeat Sevilla in the dying minutes of their away game, however, there was some controversy concerning a sending off involving Fabregas being allegedly head butted (warning!!, link has crap music playing over the top). New manager Tito Vilanova’s side though off to a flying start results wise, have not looked as sure footed as they were under Pep Guardiola, however, with their victory over Sevilla and the manner in which they came back shows that they may be finding the spirit required for any championship winning side.
At Madrid, Florention Perez is back and so is the Galacticos policy which has meant the buying of some amazing footballers including Kaka from AC Milan, Karim Benzema from Olympique Lyonnais, Mesut Ozil from Werder Bremen and last, but not least, the world’s most expensive player, Cristiano Ronaldo (CR7) from Man Utd.
The current La Liga champions have gotten off to an awful start by their standards though they have appeared to have turned a corner with victory against Man City in the final minutes of their opening CL encounter. Further, they have hammered since then Deportivo La Coruna with CR7 getting what Sid Lowe of the Guardian called ‘the ugliest hat-trick I have seen’ and last night another hat-trick against Ajax. He is simply an incredible footballer, but compared to Lionel Messi it is up for debate whether he brings as much to his game and to a team as the diminutive Argentine.
Madrid’s manager, Jose Mourinho, has been having some trouble in his camp, noticeably dropping Sergio Ramos due to dissent to the bench against Man City and CR7 noting he was feeling ‘sad’, however, these troubles seem to have been largely addressed and when a team is winning as they are now it is noteable that dissent is no longer visible.
Tito Vilanova will not have Carles Puyol at his disposal and it seems that Gerard Pique will also be something of a doubt (link in Spanish) for the game also with Javier Mascherano and perhaps Alex Song in central defense. Mascherano has been exemplary in this position, showing previous doubts and unease with him being played here were largely misplaced. As for Song, we wait and see as it is his first Clasico and this is a position he will be largely unfamiliar with. Alexis and Cesc are also 50/50 to start the game with Iniesta returning showing the strength and depth of the squad.
In all, expect a very intense game, on show are some of the greatest footballing talent on the planet, both playing styles and philosophies differ greatly but when they do clash we get to see what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. Nerves will be frayed, the atmosphere will be electric. Madrid are in 6th place in La Liga, a whole 8 points behind Barcelona. Lose on Sunday and they are 11 points (I know, pointing out the obvious) behind and in a league where for Madrid and Barcelona draws are the new losses, 11 points would be a near insurmountable tally to try and get back.
My Prediction: Barcelona 2-2 Real Madrid