Following progression for both Barcelona and Real Madrid in the Champions League this week, the stage is now set for four Clasicos in 19 days. It is set to be a festival of footballing brilliance for the neutral if the most recent game between the two is anything to go by.
Entertainment or excellence? Sport throws up many questions like this, not least in its modern form where administrators and organisers frequently refer to matches as “entertainment.”
Contrary to popular belief, however, sport is not a part of this industry. Sportsmen should not aspire to be entertainers, but to achieve the ultimate expression of their event—to be the incarnation of greatness for their sport.
If this can be done in a dramatic fashion, then it is an added bonus.
Where El Gran Clasico is concerned, however, entertainment and excellence often combine spectacularly into this incarnation of greatness. The rival fans of Real Madrid and Barcelona desire not just success, but theatre from their sides and so often the players have respond magnificently to this demand.
I was fortunate enough to have been present in the Nou Camp for the most recent Clasico on Monday, November 29 2010, when Barcelona gave, arguably, the most complete single performance in the history of football.
What Barcelona provided was a near flawless display of footballing prowess in the biggest club game in the world, demolishing their rivals 5-0 in front of an ecstatic Camp Nou faithful.
It was not just the margin of victory which shocked that night, but the way the Catalans set about their task. There have been big wins in El Clasico before—two seasons ago Barca scored six in the Bernabeu on their way to a 19th La Liga title, while Real had a 4-1 victory in the May 2008 fixture.
What was striking was how Barcelona made their opponents submit to the inevitability of defeat by keeping possession and forcing Madrid to chase shadows.
Barcelona’s style is a subtle mix of fast-paced possession football when attacking, and a highly organised pressing game when without the ball. The two often complement each other beautifully, and they were used to devastating effect as Real were penned back in their own half for long periods.
The Madrid attacking threat was virtually non-existent, with Cristiano Ronaldo starved of service and brilliantly shackled by Carles Puyol. And until his half-time substitution, most in the stadium were unaware of Mesut Ozil’s presence on the pitch.
Barcelona had the ball for more than two-thirds of the game. They weaved, they shimmied, they toyed. Xavi Hernandez was metronomic with his passing, Lionel Messi balletic with his runs and David Villa lethal in scoring a brace.
However, it is unlikely that in the upcoming games the balance will be so skewed in favor of the Catalans. Teams coached by Jose Mourinho rarely make the same mistake twice and they will not be so accommodating to their rivals this time around.
The addition of Emmanuel Adebayor in front of Cristiano Ronaldo has been huge for them, adding an extra dimension to their play. Along with the resurgence of Karim Benzema and a return to fitness for Gonzalo Higuain, Real suddenly find themselves with four top level strikers to unleash.
Marcelo is in fine form this season, playing all along the left hand side, and though he will miss the first leg of the Champions League tie, Ricardo Carvalho has been an invaluable talisman for Mourinho. His coach will need him at his best to deal with the Barcelona attacking juggernaut.
However, the man who may hold the key to the fixture is a skilful German playmaker who, if he sparkles like he has done for much of the season, could be the difference between the sides.
Ozil was given little chance to shine in the November fixture, his precocious talents not aided by the lacklustre performance of his team mates, but he has been a revelation for Real ever since. If he can provide the ammunition for their four forwards, then Madrid could gain the upper hand in this mini-series.
The crucial fixtures are clearly the Champions League games. With the title seemingly gone for Real, the league match has little more than pride riding on it, while the Copa del Rey is undoubtedly a tertiary priority in these two sides' seasons.
Barcelona should be expected to win these two games, with Madrid eyes on Europe and the potential for an unprecedented tenth crown.
A trip to Wembley and a final date against either Manchester United or Schalke 04 is the real prize on offer. And, while most cannot see beyond Barcelona in this particular battle either, Mourinho's desire to be the first coach to retain the trophy in the Champions League era should not be underestimated.
He gives the impression that the Champions League is his tournament to lose and, if the 5-0 aggregate demolition of Tottenham Hotspur in the quarterfinals is anything to go by, this belief appears to be rubbing off on his players
The yellow card, and subsequent suspension, picked up by Carvalho against Tottenham could be pivotal. Real's defence looks far weaker without him but, if they can overcome this set back and not concede too many in the first leg, they have all the tools to spring a surprise and vanquish Barca.
With Messi, Villa and Iniesta on show, however, that's a mighty big "IF."
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