“Words can’t really describe the clasico,” said Sergio Ramos. “It is the biggest game in the world.”
No match has what this has, both off and on the pitch, a game that is mercilessly hyped and then has a happy habit of only going and living up to that hype, which makes some sense when you consider the players they have. Luis Suarez, Karim Benzema, Luka Modric, Andres Iniesta, Ramos, Gerard Pique, Isco, Jordi Alba, Asensio, Sergio Busquets, Gareth Bale and those two.
Try this, for example: It has been 30 league seasons since these teams met at the Bernabeu and it finished 0-0, more than 30 matches in all competitions and at all stadiums since there was a clasico without goals. Last year it was 2-3 to Barca, the year before it was 0-4. The year before that finished 3-1 and the year before that it ended 3-4 to the visitors.
That’s 20 goals in four matches. You’ll notice that three of those were Barcelona wins as well and as Ramos admitted, Madrid can’t afford for that to happen again. They go into this game 11 points behind (with a game in hand).
“We’re more obliged to win than ever given the situation in the league, to keep in touch,” Madrid’s captain said. That comes as quite a surprise considering the season started with the Spanish Super Cup, which Madrid won 5-1 on aggregate. After that game, Gerard Pique admitted that “for the first time in nine years since I have been here, I feel inferior to Madrid.” But now look: It is Barcelona who are top, unbeaten ever since — a run that goes back 24 games to that night — and if they were to win on Saturday, it would not end the season, but almost. Well, for Real Madrid perhaps. As Ernesto Valverde neatly put it: “Everyone always looks at Madrid, but Atletico are just behind us.”
Playing to win
“They’re going to try to win” said the headline on the front of the Catalan paper Sport this week. To which it was tempting to respond: Thanks. For. That.
However, there was a bit more in it than stating the painfully obvious. Barcelona’s lead at the top of the table does pose questions about how they approach this game, about whether they think a draw is a good result, whether they think a victory is something it is worth taking risks for, whether they play to control or play to attack. And whether they will even get the chance to choose, of course. Sometimes do what you can, not what you want.
“We’d like to win 4-0, but I’d take a 1-0 from Messi in the 95th minute,” Ivan Rakitic said. For Madrid, those questions are also pertinent even if on the face of it, only a win will do. Part of the plan, at least, they are clear about: expect them to step up, though, especially early on, to try and deny Barcelona the chance to play their way out from the back.
Madrid going “all Barca,” Barca going “all Madrid”
Well, maybe not “all” (and perhaps their supposed identities were exaggerated anyway) but there has been a convergence of styles in recent years, the two teams meeting in the middle a little more both figuratively and literally.
Both teams will want the ball, both will play through possession. “If we want to win, we will have to dominate the ball,” Iniesta said. Yet there are shifts and changes too. Barcelona have been more solid — less, well, Barcelona, even as they have lost some of the counter-attacking qualities they had with Neymar. Rakitic referred to the “lack of show” and while it hasn’t always been fluid, it has been successful. Last season, Madrid won it all and they did so, by the end, through control as much as the counter. (The latter is a weapon they still have, of course.) And while that dominance has dropped, they still aspire to possession. No one in Spain has had more of the ball than these two this season.
Perhaps two starting midfielders represent the shift — the cross-pollination, if you prefer — best of all: Paulinho and Modric. “He gives us a type we didn’t have before,” Valverde said of the Brazil international. As for Modric, a Barcelona fan growing up who even looks a little like Johan Cruyff, universally admired at last, Zinedine Zidane says he doesn’t need to tell him too much: He just knows.
Zidane can’t suppress a smile that speaks of admiration when he talks about Modric and
Ronaldo (and Bale, and Benzema)
What was it Zidane said? Ah, yes: “Careful with Cristiano Ronaldo.” He’s not playing well, he’s not scoring goals, he’s just not that good … or so they said. “He’s so great that when it’s not going quite as well as he would like, people talk,” Zidane said. “But careful with Ronaldo: There are six months of the season left.”
He didn’t even need that long: the difference between his stats in the league and the Champions League already underlined that there was something a little false about his low scoring figures in La Liga; now, he is up and running again. He has scored four games in a row. Actually, “up and running” might not be the right phrase. Ronaldo didn’t train Wednesday or Thursday, instead working alone inside and without the ball, which was a concern even if most assume that he will be ready for Saturday lunchtime.
The question may be more: who plays with him? Benzema was in the gym, too, while Bale is back in training and for all the caution, looking not too far off full fitness. The newspaper AS has taken to calling the BBC the bbC even in news pieces, not just opinion, and they’re all pleased with themselves for their ingenuity. It’s because they say only Cristiano warrants a capital letter, you see? Clever, huh? Anyway, while it’s true that Ronaldo continues to be the star, as decisive as ever and perhaps even more so, Bale getting back to fitness is good news.
It seems likely that Bale will start on the bench with Isco adding to Real’s numbers in midfield, his role having become secured over the past 10 months or so and his performances superb, but that may soon get challenged, particularly if Zidane seeks speed. In which case, Bale is quite the sub to bring on — as Al Jazeera and Fuenlabrada found.
Meanwhile, the debate about Benzema might refuse to go away but Zidane also refuses to leave him out, and nor should he necessarily. No one does what Karim does, Zidane believes. So might the letters come together again at last? The BBC have not started a game for 245 days. The last time they did was this same fixture last year. Bale lasted 39 minutes.
Ronaldo and Messi
Right, you know the drill. Messi, Ronaldo, Ronaldo, Messi. Discuss. Or just shout, if you like. Or, maybe just, you know, enjoy it. Oh, and if there has to be a debate or a battle, and if it is almost always quantified, how about this: These two men, winners of the Ballon d’Or every year for the last decade, have both scored 53 goals in 2017, which you’d think everyone can agree is quite a lot.
The power of Ter Stegen …
“I knew she was coming, but… I don’t know what was the matter with me?” Marc-Andre Ter Stegen told El País. The day he got married, he admitted, he was a bundle of nerves. Well, there’s a first time for everything. When it comes to being on the pitch, Barcelona’s goalkeeper says he never, ever gets nervous and it shows, too. If anything, his critics suggested that he was sometimes too confident. Back when he had critics. Even then there weren’t that many of them, most were soon convinced that selling Claudio Bravo was a good thing even though the Chile international was the club’s starter in the league. Now there are none.
Even Barcelona’s own Twitter feed suggested not so long ago that Messi at one end and Ter Stegen at the other are the main reasons they’re top of the table, and while that doesn’t speak so highly of the rest, there’s something in it. The product of Borussia Monchengladbach has 14 clean sheets and 45 saves so far this season; there’s also a sense that he may well be the best in the world right now.
The last time these two sides met, Real Madrid scored five goals across the two legs of the Spanish Super Cup. It took another 16 games for Barcelona to concede as many and there is no doubt that they are more solid now and more compact, but they also have a goalkeeper they rely on. Ter Stegen says he doesn’t dream about games, doesn’t even have nightmares and doesn’t look back, still less in anger, but he did admit that there was a goal that annoyed him: the last one he let in at the Bernabeu.
… and the grace of Navas
Speaking of “last” and “Bernabeu,” could this be Keylor Navas’s last clasico there? It’s not quite as outlandish a thing to say as it might sound. Somehow, he’s almost always felt half-way out, pretty much ever since he was in. He was literally sitting at the airport as Madrid tried to sign David De Gea, his plane to Manchester out on the runway but never boarded because everything collapsed at the last minute, and the sense that he could be about to get replaced has never really gone away since.
“People like to talk; I’m used to it by now,” he has said. There’s something almost scary in his stare as he says it, a cold, hard look in his eyes that perhaps says something about his personality. He says he will fight for his place and he is fiercely, if quietly, competitive. But the candidates keep coming. This Christmas, Athletic Bilbao’s aptly named Kepa Arrizabalaga is almost certain to arrive. And while Navas has had his moments, some of them superb, that suspicion that he’s just not quite good enough never seems to go away entirely.
Don’t rule out a match-winning save or two, though.
Alba’s scintillating form
Head back, eyes pointing skywards, spine straight and legs whirring, Jordi Alba has whizzed up and down the wing all season, a roadrunner perhaps liberated by Neymar vacating the road in front of him and allowing the Spain international to become more important than ever before. That’s what he says, anyway (although the absence of Luis Enrique probably helps too).
This has been Alba’s best season. A look at the Villarreal game underlines his importance. No exchange was more repeated than Messi-to-Alba, Alba-to-Messi, the ball going from one to the other 30 times and almost always with real intent. He’s not quite Dani Alves (is anyone?) but the pitch has tilted his way and he is performing that key creative role.
Open to Alba, back to Messi along the floor, running in from deep and a first-time shot is a recurring move that Madrid will be aware of. Given Zidane’s response to the wide threat posed by Sevilla — he strung his four midfielders right across the pitch to block off their progress — there may even be a chance that he will make changes as they seek to stop Alba. But will it work?
Not long after Vermaelen signed for Barcelona, a teammate said that every bit of his body hurts him and he has suffered like few others. If he didn’t give up, many others gave up on him. Then, suddenly, when Samuel Umtiti tore a muscle against Celta and with Javier Mascherano still injured at the time (and soon to head off to China, eight years after arriving as a midfielder but never really playing there), Vermaelen was needed.
Many feared for him and feared even more for the team but the Belgium international has quietly got on with it, mistake-free and injury free too. Signed in 2014, he has played just 29 games for Barcelona and that includes six in a row now — more than at any other time since he left London. He has barely been noticed, which is a good thing. He hasn’t put a foot wrong. There hasn’t been a test like this yet, mind you.
And so to Sergio Ramos
Somehow, you just know he will have a part to play. But which part?
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.