Saturday, October 25, 2014

Real Madrid v Barcelona: The irresistible force meets the irresistible force

Before the fury, all of the sound. Those at Real Madrid are talking about their fearsome recent strike rate, Barcelona are speculating about the possibility of Leo Messi finally breaking Zarra’s Spanish league goalscoring record at the Bernabeu.
This week’s Clasico is already being underscored by its usual epic dimensions. Yet, amid the hype, there was a moment of quiet. Andres Iniesta has always been as thoughtful off the pitch as he is creative on it and he attempted to put the cacophony into some kind of context.
“The Clasico is always a football battle,” he said on Thursday. “It’s not just another game. Never. It’s a great feeling for whoever wins. It would be a mistake to think nothing happens if we lose.”
Iniesta knows that as well as anyone. The Camp Nou legend played in what were probably the most consequential Clasico fixtures in history, games where virtually everything was decided if you lost. Between 2009 and 2012, both Barcelona and Real Madrid were so far ahead of the rest of the Spanish league that their matches against each other almost literally settled the title race.
They each won enough of the other games that the Clasicos became like two-legged cup finals. The title did end up coming down to the fine margins of genuinely momentous meetings.
Now, it doesn’t really feel like that, and not just because of Atletico Madrid's rise. The number of points achieved by the champions last season dropped from 100 to 90, and the competitiveness of the title race doesn’t seem quite as intense. The quality is not quite so deep. There are more reprieves, which Atletico themselves illustrated by winning the league despite their late stumble.
As such, with the Clasico, it is as if substance has been replaced by something a touch more superficial.
Consider the defining aspects of the duel compared to that period between 2009 and 2012. Back then, the rivalry ultimately revolved around two managers in Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, who themselves represented the polar opposites of the game’s dominant tactical debate.
One was based around a proactive possession-pressing approach, the other a reactive and pulsating counter-attacking approach. Those extremities led to two complete teams and the most relentless and ruthless title races Spain has seen, culminating in the Champions League semi-finals of 2010-11.
That spell may well come to be seen as a historical peak in Spanish football.
Now, it revolves around something more hysterical, that piques the attention of those not so intensely interested: the "stars".
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Barcelona forward Luis Suarez could face Real Madrid in the first meeting of the two Spanish clubs on Saturday. 
Barcelona forward Luis Suarez could face Real Madrid in the first meeting of the two Spanish clubs on Saturday …
It says much that we are no longer discussing the greatest tactical projects or managers, but the most stellar attacks.
In that regard, it’s hard to dispute that we’re seeing forward lines of a force never before present in this fixture. There’s never been another period when so many of the world’s most illustrious players were concentrated at these two clubs.
It’s also hard not to think that has affected the rest of the teams.
Carlo Ancelotti has been forced to adjust to the sales of tactical lynchpins such as Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria in order to accommodate James Rodriguez and Toni KroosLuis Enrique saw the Barca hierarchy lavish £70m on an attacker like Luis Suarez, but then bring in bargain defensive options such as Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen.
The very fact Suarez himself returns from a long suspension to play his first game for Barca brings all this to a head. It's all about the glamour, the names, the obvious headlines.
The issue with Barca is not whether Luis Enrique can solve the back-line problem that have beguiled them in the Champions League, and thereby maintain that fine defensive record against the likes ofCristiano Ronaldo. It is whether the Uruguayan can merely bring their own attack up to the level of Real's.
It all feels a little lop-sided, but that at least means the league itself isn’t quite so lopsided towards Real and Barca.
It also means the game itself could be more open-ended. Back in the Mourinho-Guardiola period, the patterns of the games were set. Barca would press, Real would look to sit and pounce. It was the micro details and performance levels that settled things.
Now, the match is not so bound by the parameters of near-perfection. Although the current feeling is that Real should finally expose Barca’s defensive problems to win, there are no guarantees. It is far likelier to be a free-for-all shoot-out rather than the bad-tempered chess matches of old.
That could make it much more of a spectacle than ever.

It just won’t have the same specific effect. The match doesn't have that same substance.
(Source: Eurosport)