By Sam Lee
There’s a certain buzz that every football fans feels when the fixture list is announced ahead of a new season. No matter if you support Hereford United or Houston Dynamo, there’s always the big derby game that fans seek out first and start making plans for several months in advance.
There are also a handful of fixtures that every fan looks out for, even though these games don’t involve their own teams. These are football’s most famous matches, fierce rivalries between two of the sport’s biggest clubs, clashes that define the beautiful game. One such fixture is Barcelona versus Real Madrid, and it’s just around the corner. What’s more, it’s the biggest, most tantalising meeting between the sides in recent memory.
The hype machine is in overdrive for the latest instalment of El Grande Clasico, and rightly so. Barcelona, the team many believe to be the best in the world, against their old rivals Real Madrid, managed by who many see as the best coach in the world. Barca have won the last two La Liga titles. Mourinho outfoxed them at the Nou Camp with Internazionale last season. Madrid finished the last campaign with a record points tally of 96, only to be bested by Barca’s 99.
Far and away the best two sides in the country, the league title is now decided by the two clashes between the sides. Barcelona have won the last four meetings, and with those the last two titles. The season before that, Madrid won both ties and took the crown.
Just like any other derby game, there’s sure to be a hostile atmosphere at the Nou Camp on Monday night. But this isn’t just any other derby game. Just as Barcelona claim to be more than a club, this is more than a derby, more than a game of football.
There is an especially hostile reception reserved for when Madrid come to town. The proud Catalonian supports of Barca, many of whom would not have celebrated Spain’s World Cup win, cannot pallet the team from the capital and they have never been afraid to show it, just ask the pig whose head was thrown at a returning Luis Figo.
But their ire is not dedicated to Real Madrid alone, oh no. If there is one man in modern-day football that they detest, then it’s Jose Mourinho. Despite getting his first taste of coaching at Barcelona, after working his way up from Bobby Robson’s translator to coach and tactical analyser, before becoming Louis van Gaal’s assistant manager, Mourinho has since riled the club over a series of clashes with his Chelsea and Inter sides. While manager of the London club, Barca’s fans awaited him at the City’s airport and spat at him. After knocking them out of last season’s Champions League, arguing with Pep Guardiola and celebrating the result on the pitch, he said:
“I’m not stupid enough to think that this hate can be turned into love.
“I respect Barca and and I’ll never forget what the club gave me in the four years I was here, but something has been created around me that is hard to make positive.
“It is clear that I will end my career without having coached Barca.”
If that match meant he would never manage Barca, it all but sealed his arrival at the Santiago Bernabeu. When Madrid-based sports newspaper Marca ran a poll back in January asking who Madrid fans wanted as a new manager, Mourinho did not get a single vote. After masterminding that victory over Barcelona, he was talk of the town.
Mourinho’s appointment married two of Barcelona’s most hated figures together, giving this game some little-needed extra spice, and gives those fans, like me, who pencilled this game into their diaries back in July, a little bit more to look forward to.
Considering Madrid’s early-season form, and Mourinho’s barbs aimed at Barcelona wherever possible, fever pitch will truly be reached on Monday night.
But that’s not all. That’s not close to being all. For any normal game, even for any normal clasico, a Mourinho team playing at the Nou Camp would be enough of a sub-plot to grab the interest of the world game.
Barcelona versus Real Madrid always represents a clash of values, of ideologies. Youth policy versus checkbook, home-grown versus Galactico.
Eight of Spain’s World Cup-winning squad were brought through the ranks at la Masia, Barcelona’s world-famous youth academy. Seven of those are regular starters at the Nou Camp, while Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas pines for a return. Pep Guardiola, their much-feted manager, learned his trade there, before returning to work as a coach and nurturing the likes of Sergio Busquets. Then there’s Lionel Messi, the world’s best footballer.
Real Madrid, meanwhile, have assembled the most expensive squad in world football. Last summer, Kaka, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso were brought in to help secure the title. After failing, they were joined this year by World Cup stars Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira. And Angel Di Maria. Of course, they also boast the most expensive player in history, Cristiano Ronaldo.
This time, despite the digs, mind-games, results and records, it’s not about Mourinho. This game is about two men, two icons. Lionel Messi. Cristiano Ronaldo. The best two players in the world lining up against each other on the same pitch.
The form of the two men is staggering. Lionel Messi was always going to be a great player, one of the best ever, but it’s not merely poetic to suggest that his meteoric rise has been accelerated by the arrival of Ronaldo. Since Madrid paid Manchester United £80m for the then World Footballer of the Year, Ronaldo has played 54 games in the famous white shirt, and he’s scored 52 goals. In doing so, he broke all sorts of club records, including the player to reach 50 Madrid goals faster than anybody else in the club’s illustrious history.
In that same period, Messi has played 71 matches and has scored 70 goals, taking the Ballon D’Or from his rival in the process.
In October 2010 alone, Ronaldo netted 13 goals for club and country. In this month of November so far, Messi has responded with 10, with one game remaining.
This season as a whole, Ronaldo has scored 18 times in 19 games, Messi has 23 goals in 18 appearances. After Barca’s 8-0 thrashing of Almeria, a Messi hat-trick moved the Argentinian ahead of Ronaldo in the race for Spain’s top goalscorer award, the Pichichi, by two goals. By the end of the night, Ronaldo was one goal ahead again after bagging a hat-trick of his own against Athletic Bilbao.
Spain is often accused of having a two-team league; only Real Madrid or Barcelona can win it. This season, it could be argued that it’s a two-player league, such is the blistering ding-dong battle between Messi and Ronaldo. In reality, come Monday night, the Nou Camp will boast 22 of the world’s finest footballers, including 10 players nominated for the 2010 Ballon D’Or, and 13 World Cup winners.
The class of their respective team-mates cannot be taken out of the equation, but in future years, people will sit and tell their grandchildren exaggerated tales of when World Cup winning Spain was illuminated by two non-Spanish players, who scored a goal every game they played in, who scored a hat-trick when it suited them.
It won’t be the first, or last, time that two of football’s best footballers will take to the field against each other, but given the incredible form of both teams and players, it makes this fixture one to savor. It could be the great ‘where were you?’ moment of a footballing generation. Where were you when Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi ran the grandest Clasico of them all?
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