The Greatest Football Rivalry
..of all time is here again. Oh yes, it is El Clasico time once again. Last year, there were 5 different encounters between the Real Madrid and Barcelona which, more than anything helped to worsen the rivalry and bad blood between these two titans of Spanish football. If you can remember, the very first Clasico of last season, and incidentally Mourinho’s first clasico as a new coach of the Galacticos, saw Barca utterly demolish the Galacticos 5-0 in Camp Nou. The methodical and classy way with which Barcelona dismantled Real Madrid in that match was something that Mourinho will never forget in a hurry. As a matter of fact, it completely changed the way and manner with which Mourinho would subsequently approach any and all future encounters with Barcelona. To Mourinho’s credit, he quickly had to adapt to the reality on the ground.
The subsequent matches were no longer a test to see which one of these two teams can play the most entertaining flavor of football—Real Madrid virtually ceded that contest to the Catalan giants. But if Real Madrid ever wanted to record favorable results against the seemingly unstoppable Blaugrana team, something had to give. If you just couldn’t outshine or dominate possession against that Barca team, you had to find a way to make the match a more physical game. The hope is that by so doing, you are able to prevent another merciless rout. This was precisely the strategy that Mourinho adopted. Was it a smart move? Well in 5 matches with Barcelona, Real Madrid won 1, drew 2 and lost 2. It certainly didn’t seem like a very bad record for Mourinho’s first year as coach of Real Madrid: especially given Barca’s formidable form last season. However, Real Madrid remained sharply behind Barca in the chase for the title as they continued to work on their own internal problems. Barca finally won the title and crowned it all with a spectacular win over Manchester United to lift the Champions League trophy.
This seems like ancient history now. At the beginning of this season, I expressed a slight apprehension over what I perceived to be a slight deterioration in the drive, quality, finesse, and the hunger for supremacy by Barcelona. I have noticed that Barca’s defensive line has not been as strong and united as it used to be; Barca’s forwards Pedro and Villa have not had the sort of success at goal scoring that I imagined—and they probably already realize this; Messi is getting overworked and closely marked. He may be a phenom, but he would surely appreciate his fellow strikers picking up the slack whenever he wants to gradually slip into the supporting attack role. Let’s also not forget that for a long time Barca has been plagued by personal injuries. These have translated into Barca narrowly tying matches they should have won convincingly and slumping from their prominent number 1 position.
Now, it may be that I am unfairly expecting matchless excellence from Barcelona every time they step out on the field; someone might even remind me that despite my uneasiness about the current quality of Barcelona’s weekly performance, they are still doing very well in the Champions league fixtures and are currently 2nd on the table immediately behind their eternal rivals. As such the proverbial ship is not sinking and the proverbial sky is clearly not falling in on Barcelona. I don’t know what it is, but something deep in my gut tells me that this season’s Barca has clearly not been as lethal as they were last year. It is a feeling that I have found hard to shake in recent times even though any objective analysis would quickly point out that Barca is playing laudable football.
On the other hand, it is evidently clear that Real Madrid is much improved this season. They are stronger, sharper, more cohesive, and clearly more lethal. As a matter of fact, they have never quite looked better and more capable of wreaking havoc. And this they have proved with their amazing goal-scoring form this season. Whatever faults you may perceive in Mourinho, you must admit that he has managed to transform Real Madrid into a force to reckon with— by ball possession, quality of play and goals scored. There was the danger that he was going to remake the team into a defensively minded bunch of ruffians, but then I suppose that has proven not to be the case so far. But then again, it may be that those aggressive rugby tactics only show up when they meet a team like Barcelona; I suppose that remains to be seen tomorrow.
Tomorrow’s match with Barcelona will be very decisive. With one match to spare, Real Madrid is already leading Barcelona by 3 points. If Real Madrid wins tomorrow’s Clasico on their home pitch, they could quickly open up a 9 point lead over Barcelona after they might have played an equal number of matches—a prospect that leads one to the inevitable conclusion that the title is theirs for the taking. This is why Real Madrid will come out guns blazing tomorrow—to avenge that painful loss against Barca last year, to establish themselves as the undisputed best in La Liga, and to put the title race out of contention.
Furthermore, since 2006, Barcelona has met Real Madrid about 16 times—they tied on 5 occasions, Real Madrid won 4 times, and Barcelona won 7 times. There will be a deep burning desire in Real Madrid to win tomorrow’s match, if for nothing else, to sort of bring up their head-to-head victory tally. Because of these reasons, I can see Real Madrid actually winning tomorrow’s match, but I hope it would certainly not be by a five-goal margin. For Barca to go to the Bernabeu and win, they will have to play the sort of amazing football they are known for last season but which sadly hasn’t quite manifested itself this year. They will need every member of that team to perform at peak capacity and avoid silly mistakes in the back line. It is also very possible that in the end, both teams will go with a draw.
Enough said for now. Let’s see what tomorrow will bring.