By Shane Thomas
As the weekend dissipates into Monday, many people will return to the grind of their working week, bemoaning how quickly the weekend passed them by and looking wistfully ahead to Friday evening. In one part of Cataluyna, the hard work will also begin for Real Madrid & Barcelona.
The two biggest (and arguably best) clubs in world football collide in the Camp Nou on Monday evening in what has become the biggest club match on the planet. So much so that it has been given its own moniker, el classico.
And while we won't know what the quality of the match will be until around 10pm on Monday, the reason for the hype is justified. They are the best two clubs in the best league in the world. In Pep Guardiola & Jose Mourinho, they each have one of the world's premier managers. One team has Lionel Messi, the other has Cristiano Ronaldo (and a debate about which one of these two is the world's best player would take more time than we currently have).
Both sides have scored goals for fun in Spain this season (33 each), and may end divvying up their domestic league trophy & the Champions League between them. Barcelona and Real Madrid is not just a huge game because of the prestige held by the two clubs, but they are both genuinely excellent sides, with the likelihood of 10 members of Spain's recent World Cup winning squad on the pitch. The fact that they're so well matched only adds to the anticipation.
While Barcelona are still the benchmark in club football, a pervading feeling has spread throughout the region that the empire is beginning to crumble. There has been a change of club President over the summer, Sandro Rosell replacing Joan Laporta (the match was postponed until Monday, due to the local political elections that Laporta is taking part in).
Laporta not only left Barca in a worrying amount of debt, but also failed to sign Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas as a parting gift to the club. Guardiola was Laporta's appointment, and has found it tough going working with Rosell. Add to the rumours that persist that he has taken this group of players as far as he can - this has been the most successful period in the club's history - and many feel that Guardiola is preparing himself for life away from Catalunya. Not only would this be a hammer blow to the club, but also to the region - Guardiola has been part of the fabric at Barcelona since he was 13. If you cut him, he'd probably bleed blue & red.
Real Madrid, on the other hand, seem like the coming force. The Spanish giants have been without a trophy for two seasons, which is abhorrent to a club with such high aspirations - which was compounded by Barcelona succeeding in lieu of Madrid's failures.
Their president, Florentino Perez has decided that throwing money at the club will restore their former glories. As far as Perez is concerned, everything has a price. And he's willing to pay it. Last season they spent £224 million on players (£80 million of that going on Ronaldo). This season they spent an undisclosed amount (believed to be around 81 million euros) on further player reinforcement. But Perez's most high profile acquisition was bringing Jose Mourinho from Inter Milan to coach this new group of galacticos.
Fresh from winning the treble with Internazionale, Mourinho has taken Madrid to the top of La Liga, thus far not losing a match. And despite the stereotype his teams have of playing defensive football, Real have had no problems in the goalscoring side - as already stated, they have as many goals as Barcelona. What attracted Perez to the Portugese is not only Mourinho's penchant for attaining immediate success (there is still no more impatient club worldwide than Real), but the fact that his Inter team got the better of Barcelona in last season's Champions League semi-finals.
Mourinho has himself admitted that he is pleasantly surprised at how quickly his team have adapted to how he wants them to play. New signings such as Angel Di Maria have supplemented the likes of Gonzalo Higuain & Ronaldo to devastating effect at times, and on form, there is no better holding midfield player anywhere than Xabi Alonso right now.
So while both sides have entertained their fans consistently this season, I wouldn't expect this to be a free-flowing game. Mourinho knows how to set teams up to play against Barcelona. The Catalans only know how to play their 'tiki-taka' possession style of football. Expect them to have much of the ball but look vulnerable to counter-attacks led by the lethal & explosive Ronaldo. 'CR7' has surpassed his excellent level of performance from last season, and will be desperate to put his rival, Leo Messi in the shade.
I see the game ending in a draw, probably 1-1. But the imporance of these games can't be underestimated. They tend to decide the destination of the Spanish title. Mourinho has said this isn't a "six-pointer", "it's a thirty-six pointer". In recent seasons, Real & Barcelona have pulled far ahead of their domestic rivals and as a result these games have taken on a do-or-die importance normally reserved for cup finals. Win the clasico, and chances are you'll win the league.
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