By Manuel Traquete
El Clasico is hands down the biggest football match in the world. Barcelona and Real Madrid are by far the two biggest and most popular clubs in Europe, having a combined 90 million fans just on the continent. Besides, Lionel Messi of Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid are the two most popular and idolised football players in the world.
As if all this were not enough, Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho are the two managers of the moment. The Barcelona manager took the football world by storm, winning the sextuplet in his first season and winning eight trophies out of 10 in his short managerial career. On the other hand, Mourinho is regarded by many as the best manager in the world today since he has succeeded everywhere he managed. Last season, he led Inter Milan to the Champions League title, narrowly edging Guardiola’s Dream Team in a classic semifinal tie. Mourinho’s presence will bring even more media attention to this year’s Clasico.
Given all this, it’s safe to assume that, even though it will be played on a Monday, the whole football world will be watching the Clasico. On display will be the two biggest clubs in Europe, the best players in the world that includes several world champions as well as nominees for the 2009 Ballon d’Or, two of the best managers in the world and arguably the two strongest squads in Europe right now.
Real Madrid have started the season in great form. Mourinho had an immediate impact on the team and Los Blancos currently lead the table with 32 points from 10 wins and two draws. Some of these victories have been hard-fought, but it’s the points that count.
As for Barcelona, they didn’t start the season very well, especially at home. Their shocking defeat to Hercules and draw to Mallorca mean that the blaugrana currently sit in second place with 31 points, one point behind their eternal rivals. Still, Barcelona eventually found their form and have been unplayable of late. Just Saturday, they annihilated Almeria, 8-0, on the road with absolutely stunning football.
The following are six reasons why Barcelona are favorites for the Clasico. This doesn’t mean, of course, that Barcelona are guaranteed to win. Everything can happen in a Clasico; logic is simply irrelevant.
The only guarantee is that the outcome of the Classico, important as it will be, will not determine the outcome of the league just yet since:
If Barcelona win, they’ll have a two-point lead over Real Madrid, a fairly irrelevant advantage that can be recovered at any time should Barcelona slip up. If the match ends in a draw, the one-point difference, an even more irrelevant one, will be kept. If Real Madrid win, they’ll get a four-point lead. An important lead, but not a decisive one, since there will still be 25 matches left, including another Clasico. That said, the result of the Clasico is by no means irrelevant as the winner will gain a psychological edge for the rest of the season.
Most of Barcelona’s key players won the World Cup with Spain. That was indeed a great achievement, but unfortunately it meant that they had virtually no preseason. As soon as they got back from holiday, they started competing.
Guardiola’s priority was to gradually improve his players’ fitness, which might offer some explanation as to why Barcelona have been shocked by Hercules and Mallorca at Camp Nou. However, the team finally seems to have hit top form and the fans have witnessed fabulous performances over the past few weeks.
The 8-0 blowout at Almeria is further indication that Barcelona are in great form ahead of the Clasico.
In addition, no usual starter is currently injured and, ever since Guardiola took charge, Barcelona have never lost a match where they fielded their best 11.
Pep Guardiola has only been a manager for two seasons, but his Clasico record couldn’t be any better. Four Clasicos, four wins. Eleven goals scored, only two conceeded.
In 2008/2009, Barcelona beat Real Madrid at Camp Nou, 2-0, and then humbled Real Madrid, 6-2, at the Bernabeu of all places in Guardiola’s finest moment as a manager.
After Barcelona swept the Clasicos—and every trophy—in 2008/2009, Real Madrid started a new Galatico era by spending 250 million on the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Xabi Alonso and Benzema.
Still, the outcome was the same: Barcelona won, 1-0, at Camp Nou in a very hard-fought match and dominated Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, winning, 2-0. Despite Real Madrid’s reckless spending, Guardiola won again and Barcelona won the league.
This year, Real Madrid are even stronger with José Mourinho and some key signings (Khedira, Ozil, Ricardo Carvalho, Di Maria), but Barcelona are still a fantastic team and Pep will try to maintain his perfect record against Real Madrid.
José Mourinho and Barcelona is a rivalry that dates back to 2005 as the ex-Bobby Robson assistant and the blaugrana have faced each other on 10 occasions (six at Chelsea, four at Inter).
Overall, Mourinho has beaten Barcelona on three occasions, drew another three and lost four times, with 13 goals for the Mourinho-oriented teams, 13 for Barcelona.
At Camp Nou, Mourinho lost three times and tied two (both with Chelsea), but he never won. Last season with Inter Milan, he was beaten 2-0 in the group stages and 1-0 in the second leg of the semifinals in what Mourinho descirbed as the “sweetest defeat” of his career.
Quite surprisingly, in five matches at Camp Nou, Mourinho’s teams only have eight shots on target overall, which suggests even more that this is a place where Mourinho usually struggles.
Then again, there’s a first time for everything and Mourinho would love nothing more than beating Barcelona at their own backyard.
Cristiano Ronaldo might be one of the most gifted players of this generation, but the 25-year-old Portuguese has never managed to get on the scoresheet against Barcelona. He had three chances with Manchester United and two with Real Madrid, but the outcome was always the same.
In fact, Ronaldo’s teams have only scored once against Barcelona, with Paul Scholes scoring in 2008 at Old Trafford for Manchester United.
In addition, Ronaldo has played twice for Portugal against Spain and Barcelona’s centre-back duo (Puyol and Piqué) and he didn’t manage to score either time.
History suggests that Puyol, Piqué and the rest of Barcelona’s defense will have no trouble turning Ronaldo into a non-factor.
However, the Portuguese winger has been in the form of his life—he has already scored 16 goals and assisted six in only 18 matches this season—and he will be looking to break the “jinx”, which means that Barcelona’s defense can by no means underestimate him.
Until this point, Real Madrid have been absolutely imperial at home. Six matches, six wins. Twenty-three goals scored, three conceded.
However, their away form has been quite different. From six matches there have been only four wins and two draws. Ten goals scored, three conceded. Moreover, three of these wins have come in the final minutes of the matches. Only once has Real Madrid won comfortably on the road (4-1 at Malaga).
Now, Los Blancos face their most difficult road game of the season at Camp Nou and, while it might not actually mean anything, their not-so-fantastic away form is certainly a point in favour of Barcelona.
Having such a once-in-a-generation player is obviously an advantage for Barcelona. This season, despite an early injury, Messi has scored a ridiculous 22 goals in 17 matches, while assisting nine.
Both teams are incredibly strong and both have extraordinary players. That said, on paper, Messi might give Barcelona an edge.
Real Madrid have fantastic players, but none of them can even come close to Lionel Messi. The Argentine is one of those few players in the history of the game who, on his day, can single-handedly decide the outcome of a match. In fact, he has done before in the Clasico: in 2006/2007 at Camp Nou, when Messi was only 18, Real Madrid dominated the match, but a Messi hat trick allowed Barcelona to get a point from a 3-3 draw.
If Messi is on his day, he’s unstoppable (Arsenal can surely attest that). Even on a not-so-inspired day, his mere presence on the pitch will draw the defenders to him and open spaces for his teammates.
Fortunately for Barcelona, Messi usually steps up in the Clasicos and he has already scored seven goals past Casillas. At only 17 years old, he tore Roberto Carlos apart at the Bernabeu.
It’s safe to assume that Messi’s performance will be fundamental in the outcome of the match.
Some more reasons could have been found, but these six are sufficient as far as I’m concerned.
To be fair, here are some factors which might work Real Madrid’s way:
This is a very obvious one. Regarded by many as the best manager in the world, the Portuguese tactician has won the national league six times in seven complete seasons. He only lost once: in 2006/2007 with Chelsea to Manchester United. Besides, he is the only manager who found a way to stop Guardiola’s Barcelona. He had some luck, but the truth is that his Inter Milan knocked Barcelona out.
That said, Mourinho has had success everywhere, but there’s a first time for everything and Mourinho will eventually experience failure.
Style of Play
Barcelona’s style of football is the most offensive style in the world. However, it does leave the team exposed sometimes in the counterattack. Coincidentially, fast transitions are one of Real Madrid’s main strengths this season. In all likelihood, Barcelona will dominate possession, but if they are not careful, Real Madrid will kill them on the break.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s Good Form
Ronaldo is Real Madrid’s main attacking weapon and he seems to have found his best form under Mourinho. He has been playing very well and Barcelona’s defense can’t take him lightly.
Every Dynasty Comes to an End
For the past two seasons, Guardiola’s Dream Team has dominated both in Spain and in Europe, collecting an unprecedented sextuplet and eight trophies in two seasons, which led most analysts to consider this Barcelona team as one of the best club teams of all-time. In addition, the backbone of the team won the Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup with Spain.
Despite having won everything there’s to win in world football, the players seem to be as motivated and trophy-hunger as ever and Barcelona are once again marvelling the world with their football.
However, sad as it may be, all good things come to an end and Barcelona won’t keep sweeping every trophy forever. This season, Real Madrid are more determined than ever and will certainly prove to be an even more formidable opponent.
While Barcelona has been nearly unstoppable for the past two seasons and most Barcelona fans feel invincible, feeling invincible and actually being invincible are two quite different things and sooner or later Pep Guardiola will have to deal with failure.
The Barcelona supporters hope that it doesn’t happen this season, but their rivals also play and they’re looking stronger than ever.