We’ve had to wait almost four agonising months since the last one but the Clásico, that Spanish melange of brilliance, bluster, creativity, crunching tackles, red mist, red cards and blue-riband footballers, is back thanks to the Supercopa first leg at the Camp Nou on Thursday night.
Barcelona, Copa del Rey winners, host Real Madrid, La Liga champions, with the decisive match next Wednesday at the Bernabeu.
If you have just emerged from several years as a hermit or an extremely long and secretive shift in a nuclear submarine just off Minsk then let me make you clear about one thing: this is the best, most exciting, most consistently sexy and highest-quality fixture anywhere in the world.
I calculate that if you bought all 22 players who start tomorrow night’s tie it would cost you, conservatively, just south of €700m and that’s because 15 of them would fit into any reasonable person’s list of the best 20 footballers in the world.
One of the things which makes the fixture so attractive, above and beyond that enormous brains trust of talent which will be on the pitch, is that the sides almost never play with wary respect for each other. The bell goes and they tear at each other. If there is a tacit, or explicit, agreement in the dressing room that this is not the Champions League Final, that this is not ‘do-or-die’ then all it will take is one controversial refereeing decision, one bad tackle before the blueprint is ripped up and the red mist descends.
One year ago this match was a classic. Wonderful football, five goals, a Messi masterclass, Cesc Fabregas’ Camp Nou debut and that infamous eye-poke by Jose Mourinho on Tito Vilanova.
In fact, if you are considering where to be on Thursday evening opt for Sky Sports and Barcelona v Real Madrid. Only the type of person who thinks Gok Wan is interesting or who watches Open University tutorials on particle physics might consider missing it.
Take the tale of the tape. There have been so many Clasicos recently that by the first week in October Mourinho will have coached in 14 of them. He took over in summer 2010 which makes it a Clasico every eight weeks or so since.
Of the 11 meetings between Mourinho and Pep Guardiola there have been four score draws, five Barça wins and two for the Special One. Of the 35 total goals Barça have scored 22 and Madrid 13 while Los Blancos have a significant card lead – 50 of the 81 bookings and seven of the nine red cards.
Since the now-departed Guardiola took over back in 2008 the dominant figures in these magnificent matches had been Leo Messi and Xavi. Goals, assists, victories – their DNA all over all three. At least until last season. While Barca won more Clasicos than Madrid last term and defeated Los Blancos in two competitions, the Copa and the Supercopa there were two significant new trends.
Madrid became much more comfortable at the Camp Nou (aggregate results one defeat, a draw and a win, goals 6-6) than at home (aggregate results at the Bernabéu a draw and two defeats, goals 4-7).
The other important factor was that Cristiano Ronaldo began to demonstrate that, if properly supplied, he had the Barcelona back four worked out. Ronaldo scored four times, at least one in each competition, and it was his goal which won Madrid their first Camp Nou Clasico since 2007.
But there was double Portuguese trouble at the weekend for Mourinho. Pepe seems certain to be ruled out after his concussion against Valencia and Ronaldo just looked a little droopy.
I suspect there’s little wrong with him that an early goal wouldn’t rectify immediately but IF Madrid are a little less secure at the back and IF Ronaldo is genuinely just a shade away from his most convincing form then we may see an end to the trend of Mourinho’s Madrid making the home Clasico a nervy and uncomfortable affair for Catalan fans.
The rogue factor, as always, is not whether the referee is biased (as Spain’s tabloid conspiracy theorists always like to speculate) but whether he’s good enough for the occasion and the pressure.
This season we begin with Clos Gomez – the man against whom Mourinho presented a list of 13 errors immediately after Madrid v Sevilla last season. Also the man who Guardiola accused of falsifying a refereeing report but with whom Barca have a better record – seven wins and two draws compared to Madrid’s three defeat in his 15 matches in charge.
Hopefully he’ll do a good, clean job and the players will carry over the personal harmony and unity which let them join together and drive Spain to that historic third title in the summer.
That would only leave the brilliant array of skills and the shark-like will to win one-on-one battles which so many of these marvellous players possess.
Alternatively, we may well get a marvellous match plus the usual dose of insults, pushing, shoving, red cards, penalties and post match polemic.
Whichever of the two we are lucky enough to savour – just don’t miss it.
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based, British soccer writer whose passionate insight into La Liga can regularly be heard on TV and radio. He will be providing regular columns for the Paddy Power Blog on Spanish football this season. Follow him on twitter here.