The biggest rivalry in the world of sports, the Clasico, is here once again. And I am worried.
Tomorrow, Real Madrid FC and FC Barcelona will met in an epic clash in Barcelona’s Camp Nou—a bitter rivalry that has in recent times come to be known for its fierce competitiveness as well as its symbolism. It will be watched by an estimated 400 million people all around the world. You couldn’t ask for a bigger stage if you were a professional. Football stars from other leagues are going to be tuned in to see what the two biggest clubs in Spain will do.
So far Mourinho and Xavi have been trying to manage expectations. In all reality, it is just a game, but it is a game that really matters. Let us consider these facts:
- Real Madrid, the league winners last year, are 8 points behind Barca in the league standings this year having won three, lost 2 and tied 1 of the six games played so far this year. Barca by contrast has won all 6 matches to be at the top of the league table.
- Real Madrid has been outperforming Barca in recent head-to-head matches. Ronaldo has scored against Barcelona in their last 5 meetings. Also, you might remember that Real Madrid defeated Barcelona to take the Supercopa earlier this season.
- Unlike Real Madrid that has a relatively healthy collection of eager and motivated players especially players in fine form waiting on the bench (what we call a deep bench), Barcelona by contrast has been plagued by injuries. Since the season began Pique, Puyol, Thiago Alcantarra, Iniesta, Alves etc. have had one injury or the other put them out of action. As the Cules get ready to battle the Blancos, I must point out also that they will not have the services of Pique and Puyol at the back.
All these lead me to conclude that Barca must have to be exceptional form if they are not to come away with a loss at home to a physically less depleted, stronger and hungrier Madrid team. This is compounded by the fact that Barcelona seems to not have a reliable Centre Back. Like I pointed out several times last season, Barcelona desperately needs to fortify its back line, and since it hasn’t done so, it is actually within the bounds of reason to expect that Real Madrid’s rapid fire offence will cause a lot of headaches to Barca’s weaker defensive line. As a matter of fact, I am expecting a Barca loss tomorrow strange as that might sound to come from a fan.
We have struggled to win these matches unlike the Barca of a few years ago. One might even say that other teams have somehow managed to fashion a winning strategy or formula when faced with Barca’s tiki-taka. Do you want to know what this winning formula is? I’ll tell you. In any game with Barca, you automatically know we will dominate the possession. You know we’ll surely pass the ball around more often than your team. Our problem now seems to be that since Messi has suddenly decided to feature more prominently in mid-field (one wonders if he has lost his scoring drive or if he is trying to share the stage by assisting other’s to score), Barca will continue passing the ball at the edge of the goal seeking for a way to break down Real Madrid’s defense in other to score. Madrid simply has to defend aggressively in order to frustrate Barca’s slew of passes which ultimately go nowhere. While the passing is a good strategy to lure out sit-tight defending, it has its own downside.
First, Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas aren’t as sharp as they needs to be when faced with clear goal scoring opportunities. Pedro on his own part shoots too hastily and misses or else he is just passing the ball rather than trying to intimidate the opposing defenders with fast runs down the flank and the occasional cross. Messi uncharacteristically makes little effort to score. It is as though he is trying to de-emphasize his goal-scoring form this year, and besides, I have seen him complaining and arguing with referee decisions more often than he is used to.
Secondly, Real Madrid is fast on the counter-attack. They should use that often to stun or force Barca into defending their own portion of the turf. If Barca passes a lot of balls that are quickly converted into quick goals by Madrid, they may have to reconsider the strategy. In fact if that happens, it will so much dampen morale that Barca might eventually lose the match. Therefore it is crucial that Madrid does not allow Barca to get into their usual free passing mode. If Barca dominates early, and gets ‘into sync’ with their passing, it will be a long night for Madrid. That means they should always be sending balls forward to test the ability of Barca’s defense tomorrow.
Now, you might wonder why I seem to be giving these points to Madrid, and supposedly exposing the flaws of my own team. The answer is simple—this seems to be open knowledge to many teams now who have used them to great effect against Barca. Furthermore, like I pointed out, I will be surprised if Barca wins tomorrow with the depleted team they seem to be fielding against the Merengues. Of course any Barca win will extend our lead to 11 points, but that will not necessarily mean that the title has been won. We have been winning matches but not with the same flair, style or dominance like we are used to; something is clearly off. For now, I am putting it down to injuries and the lack of rock-solid defending. After this encounter, we’ll know how well Barca is prepared for the rest of the season.
Finally, I expect a mature entertaining match devoid of fighting, pushing, shoving, bickering and all the other unwholesome shenanigans that we have come to expect out of a match of this stature.
Go Barcelona—surprise me if you can!
In which FC Barcelona gets pilloried:
Barca don’t allow anyone else to play that’s why watching them is boring. Footie is supposed to be a 2-sided affair. The only time I enjoy watching Barca match is when they play Madrid, Chelsea or JM’s Inter cos those are the only teams who make the match a 2-sided affair. Watching Xavi make 800 passes a game makes me dizzy. They should give the opposition a chance to attack them and then Ill start watching Barca matches.
Holy Mackerel! Who could have imagined that FCBarcelona had so many completely-consumed, violently-spiteful, and viscerally-hateful detractors all over the place! I am tempted to opine, as many did, that the only way it is possible to harbor such powerful feelings of hatred for Barca’s style of play, or of their unquestionable position at the pinnacle of world soccer, is if you are completely new to football or worse, opposed to the concept of Joga Bonito; or maybe it is possible only if you are one of the blinkered and reliably prejudiced fans of their eternal rivals Real Madrid. But I assure you that such people in fact really do exist—wandering all over the place brimming with nothing but antipathy for the current best team on the planet!
What are the reasons for the rage evident in the enemies of Los Cules? What consumes them with such habitual and visceral dislike for a team that has demonstrated their dominance in such superlative fashion? Should not one at least grudgingly admire their excellence even if one does in fact cheer for their opposition?
Indeed, I now begin to appreciate the reason why some people may be moved to hate Barcelona’s style of play. It is their stranglehold on the ball. Even against big name teams they have this uncanny ability to dominate possession; sometimes recording as high as 60-66% of the total football possession. As someone once said to me, “this team will pass you to death”. And true indeed is that sentiment. Barca relies on tapping the ball around, spreading it all over the field and gradually breaking down defensive formations. It is not as though their players are not gifted with individual skills, or that these players are not capable of holding on to the ball for much longer, the simple truth is that to blend into Barca’s excellent all-round team play, their players have learnt to play as one single cohesive unit. That means short and accurate passes, diagonal crosses, incisive positioning and the patience to wear a team down with such methodical and graceful possession until the defence weakens or fumbles. When that happens, you’ll behold the magnificence of Barca’s individual players as they produce spectacular world-class goals.
No wonder the fans of their opposing teams may be motivated to such fruitless anger. It is certainly no fun watching your favorite team run around for the ball in vain. I am sure it must really annoy people to see their players work so hard to get the ball and get dispossessed moments later, only for Barca to continue their famous tiki-taka. It is at times like this that opposition teams turn into rugby players and take fouls to an absurd new level. I am reminded of Real Madrid under Mourinho who often imagine themselves wrestlers of some sort whenever they are confronted with Barcelona’s frustrating ball possession.
Not only is FCBarca great at dominating the ball possession, they have world-class playmakers. They may not be the tallest or sturdiest looking players; as a matter of fact they may not even carry themselves like superlative talent. But what they lose in physical stature and presence they more than make up for in creative play. If I were to start analyzing the individual talent of each member of the Barca first 15, this post will become unnecessarily long but I’ll focus on a few players for emphasis.
Take Andres Iniesta for example. Unless you are completely new to football, and thus cannot be trusted to tell what amazing talent is, there is simply no way for you to have watched Iniesta over the course of two or three seasons and not come away impressed by the talent he brings to the field. He has an amazing ability of winning the ball in dead-ball situations; sometimes emerging with the ball after being ambushed by 2 or 3 opposing players. It is as if he is some kind of magician that temporarily blinds the people that come to dispossess him of the ball. I still cannot understand how he manages to retain the ball or how he still manages to complete a pass when he is surrounded or trapped by opposing players. Secondly, the man appears tireless. He’ll keep threading passes and making amazing runs down any flank all day long. His chemistry with Xavi is undeniable and rock-solid. It is therefore not surprising that people might hate a team where at least one of her players seems to be wearing an invisibility cloak, making incisive passes all day and the occasional attempts at goal. With Iniesta on the field, it must seem to opponents as though Barca has 12 men on the field.
Then what shall we say about the “Lord of the Midfield” Xavi Hernandez? He is one of my most cherished players of all time. I like his simple humility and his work ethic. Xavi makes everyone on his side, especially his side’s forwards look better. I simply lack the words to describe his greatness. Xavi has an unequalled reading of the midfield, and a dominating presence on it. He sits at the center of the field and makes the plays, the passes, and the distribution that allow other Barcelona players to excel. It is almost impossible to dispossess him of the ball; and to add to his creative distribution, he can effortlessly dribble anyone that dares come to rob him of the ball and just as immediately send a diagonal cross that will produce a goal. The man seemingly has eyes all over his body. With him controlling the midfield and methodically breaking the opponent’s defensive line, it is hard to see Barcelona losing. The best thing to do is to go and mark closely any player that you suspect would be on the receiving end of Xavi’s creative passes. Do not give an inch of space to Barca’s strikers for the very moment you run out of place to attack or stop an advancing Xavi (a futile venture since he almost never loses the ball anyway), you can trust Xavi to see that opening, that opportunity at that precise moment to connect a very deadly pass. When watching him, I just shudder at his amazing read on the game, and his unequalled ability to pick out a fellow team member who might be better positioned to score or make an impact and subsequently thread an accurate pass. He makes it all so easy—he makes everyone on his side extra lethal. And if you think that all he is good for is creating the plays that result in goals, you would be mistaken. For the records show that he is just as good at scoring goals if he finds himself near the goal.
Then of course, you have the undisputed revelation of football in these our times, the man called Leo Messi. Tomes have already been written in praise of him so I’ll try to keep this as brief as possible. Messi is what you should think about when you try to envision the all-round complete player. He is an absolute delight to watch. Anyone who pretends otherwise is merely being cheeky or is living in serious denial. The accolades continue to pour in to celebrate his passion for excellence as he keeps performing wonders on the field. He is already on his way to becoming the highest goalscorer that Barcelona has ever known—and he is only 24 years old!
Facing a team that is blessed with such amazing world-class players, it is understandable why some people would be annoyed at the jaw-dropping regularity (you might even say predictable monotony) of Barca’s consistent unrivalled performance.
Therefore I do not think it is a valid argument, like the sore loser Jose Mourinho is wont to make, that Barcelona’s success as a team is only possible because Barcelona has the privilege of being the special darling of UEFA. It is a remark borne out of nothing but envy and pettiness. If it appears that people all over the world love Barcelona, it is simply a reflection of Barca’s commitment to excellence. Even with debilitating injuries, the Catalan giants under the able tutelage of Pepe Guardiola, have continued to justify the faith and confidence reposed in them.
Eventually all good things must come to an end; yes eventually a time will come when Barca ceases to be the number 1 team in the world, but unfortunately for Barca’s haters, that time is not now. Sitting comfortably at the top of the Spanish League with 14 points, with the most goals to date in this season, and also sailing smoothly in the Champions league matches, Barcelona is going to continue to redefine the limits of excellence in this our times. Truly they are the team to beat even if jealous rivals or pessimistic naysayers continue to verbally diminish the impact that Barca has made or accuse them of whatever their flights of fancy can conceive. True lovers of football can cheer for their own teams even as they recognize the wondrous phenomenon that is Barca football in these our times.
ALL hail the glory of FC Barcelona; long may we reign!