The biggest game in Spanish football—perhaps in European football—is fast approaching, with El Clasico on the horizon: Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, which takes place at the Camp Nou on Saturday.
As usual it will be a telling battle in the story of the title for La Liga, even this early into the season; Real are top, six points clear of Barca (and Sevilla), and taking a victory on enemy turf could already put Los Blancos into an unassailable lead.
It promises to be fiercely combative and tense, and—considering the players on show—it should also be full of the wonderful technique and offensive playing styles for which the two sides are noted.
However, it will have to go some way to match up to some of the best and biggest Clasicos in recent history, though it's not out of the question with Barca struggling for top form, Real unbeaten this season and the prospect of a nine-point gap opening up.
Here are three of the biggest we've been privileged to witness.
2005: Real Madrid 4-2 Barcelona
Turn the clock back to the 2004/05 season and we faced a reversed situation, if a lot further on in the campaign: Barcelona were top of the table, nine points clear of second-placed Real.
Perhaps it wasn't a surprise that Real lagged behind that year; inconsistency on the pitch was matched by a scattergun approach off it, as club president Florentino Perez sacked Jose Antonio Camacho, appointed Mariano Garcia Remon, then gave him the boot too and appointed Vanderlei Luxemburgo—all before the new year. The latter helped the side finish the season unbeaten in 10 games, including El Clasico.
With only eight matches left to play, a win for Los Cules would almost certainly have guaranteed the title; Real were having none of that, though, especially on home soil.
They came out all guns blazing and took an early lead through Zinedine Zidane—then midfield superstar, now head coach—and added further strikes through Brazilian striker Ronaldo and legendary captain Raul. Samuel Eto'o pulled one back for Barcelona between those two, and although Ronaldinho also found the net, Michael Owen's second-half strike made sure the points stayed at the Santiago Bernabeu.
A 4-2 win for Real closed the gap to six points, but Barcelona recovered to win their next four in a row.
Los Blancos clawed back two more points on the final day of the season as the Catalan outfit finished with three successive draws; it wasn't enough, though, and Frank Rijkaard's team were crowned champions.
2007: Barcelona 3-3 Real Madrid
A decade ago, Real Madrid claimed the Liga title, but you wouldn't have expected that to be the case heading into El Clasico in March. At that point, Fabio Capello's team sat fourth in the table, behind Sevilla, Barcelona and Valencia, and had just exited Europe at the hands of Bayern Munich.
The game was played at the Camp Nou, and Barcelona were also smarting from a Champions League exit only days previous, losing on away goals to Liverpool.
It seemed as though both Liga sides were determined to come out fighting after those setbacks and a crazy start to the match saw four goals netted inside the opening half hour: Ruud van Nistelrooy, Lionel Messi, Van Nistelrooy again, Messi again.
Indeed, Real took the lead three times during the course of the match and each time were pegged back by a 19-year-old Messi, who completed his hat-trick and salvaged the draw in stoppage time with a wonderful solo goal.
There were plenty of incidents beside the goals. Oleguer was sent off for Barcelona before half-time; Van Nistelrooy missed a one-on-one for his own treble; Sergio Ramos beat Carles Puyol in the air for Madrid's third; and Rafa Marquez, of all people, almost scored a 30-yard volley.
The point earned was enough to send Barca top that night, but it was the catalyst for a run of 10 wins from the last 12 Liga games of the season for Real Madrid.
The two sides finished level on points, 76 apiece, but the draw at the Camp Nou (coupled with Real winning on home soil earlier that season) meant the Bernabeu club were crowned champions on the head-to-head ruling.
2009: Real Madrid 2-6 Barcelona
This was a humdinger—a classic Clasico.
Heading into May 2009, Barcelona were top of La Liga by four points with five matches to play, and the first of those was against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. A win for Pep Guardiola's side would all but end the title race, while a win for Juande Ramos' outfit would mean it was all to play for in the final weeks.
It didn't take long for the goals to start flowing.
Gonzalo Higuain headed the home side ahead early on, before Thierry Henry and Puyol scored within two minutes of each other to turn the match on its head.
An error in defence saw Messi sprint away to notch a third for Barca, who led 3-1 at the break. Sergio Ramos headed in from close range to reduce the arrears and give the home fans hope, but it was quickly extinguished by Henry netting another on the counter two minutes later.
Xavi and Messi combined brilliantly for a fifth, before the rout was completed in humiliating fashion by Gerard Pique surging forward to turn home for six.
With the gap now at seven points between the two, both teams took their foot off the gas in La Liga, with Barca drawing twice and losing twice in the final weeks, and Real collapsing completely—losing their last five matches.
If Saturday's game is anything like these, we're in for yet another treat from El Clasico.