Thursday, 8 December 2011

El Clasico - Here We Go Again

By Shane Thomas

In football parlance, the phrase "clasico" refers to a match between two marquee sides. You know the type, the Manchester United's, AC Milan's and Bayern Munich's of this world. Well, contests between Real Madrid and Barcelona have become so big that they have been dubbed, "el gran clasico". This is an occasion where the febrile hype is justified. Real and Barca is not a "clasico", it's the "clasico".

The title of this post is not to indicate that I'm weary of these encounters. Quite the opposite. Towards the end of last season, "el clasico" seemed to be a weekly occurrence in the football calendar. Matches in La Liga, the final of the Copa Del Rey, and the semi-finals of the Champions League led to four contests in a very condensed space of time.

And familiarity spread contempt. Moments of champagne football were sporadic, and the abiding memories were red cards, stifling football, and an inexplicable post-match interview from Jose Mourinho, where he used the word "porque" so many times, it ceased to lose meaning.

But there have been positive signs coming from Los Blancos this season. Despite them losing an epic two-leg Spanish Supercoppa to Barcelona in the traditional Spanish curtain rasier, the consensus was that Real had closed the gap in quality between the two teams, with only a searing finish from Lionel Messi winning the game for the Catalans.

As the domestic season has progressed, the Madridistas have borne witness to some sumptuous play from Real. They've won their last 14 games in a row, and have done so in style - again proving that a Jose Mourinho team does not necessarily equate to an attritional style of football. Sergio Ramos, who is often a defender in name only, has proved an able deputy for the injured Ricardo Carvalho. Angel Di Maria - his maddening play-acting aside - is probably the form player in Spain. They haven't missed Emmanuel Adebayor in the slightest, as both Karim Benzema and the always underrated Gonzalo Higuain have been scoring for fun, so much so that Mourinho is left with the selection headache of which one to select in the centre-forward position on Saturday night.

And talking of underrated players, it's Xabi Alonso who's been the key man, knitting it all together. Xabi is often forgotten when people talk of the stellar names in the Spain national side. But his range of passing and in-game intelligence make him one of the game's great technicians. Currently, one could make a case for him being as good as his contemporary, Barcelona's Xavi Hernandez, as right now Xabi Alonso has been regulating games with all the nous and skill of Green Bay Packers quarterback, Aaron Rodgers.

And then there is "CR7", Cristiano Ronaldo. Seeming to understand that treating football as a personal one-man show is no good to him or his team, this season has seen a more selfless Ronaldo, one that looks to create chances for his teammates, and always looking to give them credit in post-match interviews. But don't think this has slowed down his rapid scoring rate. At the time of writing, he has 21 goals in only 20 games.

So what of Barcelona? Despite their successes in both La Liga and the Champions League, Pep Guardiola felt that his squad was too threadbare to compete on all fronts this season. With the World Club Challenge on the horizon at the turn of the year, Guardiola brought in both Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez into his already gilded squad.

And while there has been some glorious play from Barcelona, it has led to the squad looking a touch uneven at times. It's all well and good having so many high-class options, but it's just as important to know how and when to use them. To accommodate Fabregas, Guardiola has changed the formation, operating with three at the back. This has led to them looking exposed on occasion, particularly when they went to the Mestalla Stadium to play Valencia - a game that they were fortunate not to lose.

Players like David Villa, Gerard Pique, and even the wondrous glowworm that is Andres Iniesta have struggled to find their best form. Fabregas has been free-scoring, due to him being afforded free licence in what has been described as an "anarchic" position. It has allowed him to hurt the opposition, but has also affected the intense pressing game which is as much a key facet of Barcelona's play as their ornate passing. Also, some believe that maybe winning everything in the game has dulled the motivation of some of Barca's players.

This is not to say that the Spanish and European Champions have been playing badly, far from it (they dished out a beating to 4th placed Levante last weekend). But they are yet to hit the ethereal standards of the last campaign, and definitely a way from the heavenly 5-0 decimation in last season's "el clasico" in the Camp Nou.

Unlike last time around, the first league encounter between these two teams will take place in Madrid rather than Catalunya. And Barca's away form has been alarming. Only two wins, and they lost their last away match to Getafe. While an on-form Barcelona will still be favourites, questions remain about what is Guardiola's best XI. Does he play three or four in defence? Can he find a place for Cesc? Will Villa be left on the bench again? There have even been murmurings of Isaac Cuenca - a product of the Barcelona youth academy - being given a start, after some impressive recent performances.

Madrid on the other hand, has been a ship that has progressed serenely to the top of the table. Even Mourinho has (so far) opted not to indulge in mind games in the build-up to the match. But then why would you when you sit three points clear with a game in hand.

And the points gap is a crucial factor. Win on Saturday, and secure victory in that aforementioned game in hand will put Real nine points clear. In the context of the Spanish league, that is a mammoth total for Barcelona to recover. Indeed, many in the Madrid press are imploring Mourinho to go for the victory as a Los Blancos win could result in the Spanish title race becoming a procession.

It's these fine margins which make the match even more intriguing than normal. A Barcelona win, and the title race is back on, lose and it's as good as over.

Which makes a draw the likely result. Madrid are in control of La Liga and a point would preserve the status quo. But it wouldn't completely rule Barcelona out either, especially as Madrid still have to come to the Camp Nou. Now I thought the game would end 1-1 last season. Instead, I watched arguably the greatest display of football of all time as Barca savaged Madrid 5-0. So no score prediction from me this time around, but one thing's for sure - there's no bigger game of football on the planet, and deserves the undivided attention of anyone who considers themselves a fan of the sport.

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