With another pair of Clasicos on the horizon, we turn once again to the question of what separates the two Spanish giants of club football, Barcelona and Madrid.
Though the pendulum of overall quality and results has swung back and forth somewhat in the past few seasons, one simple difference has given Barcelona their constant edge in head-to-head encounters with Madrid: superior midfielders.
Of course, as a caveat, any attempt to compare these two massively different squads may be foolhardy, given their different styles of play.
Barcelona attack with methodical precision and deliberate passing. They rarely cross the ball, pack midfield full of players and rarely play with a recognized striker. Madrid, by contrast, attack more directly, relying especially on the swiftness of their wingers and the physical presence of their central striker.
Nevertheless, any team in the modern game has to exert some control over the middle of the pitch to have success. To a large extent Madrid's concession of the possession statistics to Barcelona is a matter not of choice but an indicator. Barcelona will continue to overwhelm Madrid in this area of the pitch in Tuesday and Saturday's clashes, because they have the superior quality to do so.
Madrid's front three are a tantalizing group of attackers, and it would be hard to argue that Barcelona's front three have them beat for attacking flair and goalscoring prowess, all told.
But all tactics and style aside, Barca's midfielders core of Xavi, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas are simply a technically superior lot to Madrid's Mesut Ozil, Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira.
As I argued here, Xavi's incredible intelligence is the real key to Barcelona's passing dominance, and in turn their attacking style on the whole.
Iniesta, though playing in a more advanced role this season, is still a critical cog in the Barcelona midfield machine and a critical component in their possession play.
And Barcelona get an incredible and increasingly recognized offensive return out of Busquets, who operates as the lone holding midfielder. He doesn't score many goals or make many assists, but Busquets is a technically gifted player who has—more and more—become a safe destination for ball possession. Gone is the Busquets of two or three years ago who would casually get caught in possession or give the ball away in his defensive third.
Fabregas has had his ups and downs in the Blaugrana shirt, but at his best, he adds a slightly more direct and deceptive piece to the Barca attacking puzzle.
It's not that Madrid's midfield three aren't a quality group; at their best, they are among the most lethal combination in all of world football. The two Germans attack with a certain speed and power that's often missing from players like Xavi or Fabregas.
But in the end, they don't quite have the technical quality to match Barca's brilliant four, and thus will always be struggling for control in Clasico matches.