El Clasico, Sunday 8pm, Sky Sports 1
Those who thought, a couple of weeks ago, that this Clasíco was shaping up like a premium Mike Tyson versus an eight stone weakling may see no reason at all to change their mind.
It’s just a fortnight since Barcelona put in what must be their worst league performance since January 2004 (then it was a 3-0 away defeat to Racing Santander, this time a pathetic display in losing 1-0 to Valladolid) and the reigning champions have only 12 out of a possible 21 points in recent matches.
Set that against Real Madrid’s relentless treatment of every kind of rival, Copa, Champions League and La Liga and this was shaping up as a mis-match.
But not for me the hoary old chestnut that ‘anything can happen’ in a ‘derby’ or a ‘Clasíco’ – there are a clutch of specific, interesting factors which while Madrid may deserve to remain favourites, narrow the gap.
Firstly the pride of the Barcelona players has been horribly wounded. Not, for once, by criticism from the media and fans but because they, as a group, fully realized that the level of commitment, attitude and effort they showed at Valladolid was totally unacceptable.
Both the victories since then, beating Manchester City 2-1 and thumping Osasuna 7-0, have been cathartic.
Key players performed with zest, concentration, energy and aggression.
Both, granted, were at the Camp Nou where Barcelona’s vulnerability has been dramatically less evident.
But tied with the recent wins at Sevilla and City there was evidence that the absolutely crucial remnants of Barcelona’s golden era are locked and loaded – Messi, Iniesta, Valdés in particular.
It isn’t quite stating the obvious as much as once would have been the case, but Messi is the key.
Mess-ter and Commander
His performances in 2014, since he lost the Ballon D’Or to Cristiano Ronaldo, have been a strange mix. When he’s played listlessly he’s either scored or assisted. When he, and the team, have hit top gear, he’s looked brilliant once more.
Historically he loves this match. The Argentinian has 18 goals in 26 meetings with Madrid, one more and he’ll pinch the all time record off his countryman Alfredo Di Stefano (30 Clasícos).
This calendar year in 17 matches, all competitions, he’s scored 17 times and made seven more.
This, just when people were beginning to question his appetite, his zip and his mood.
One might argue that Sky Sports bringing us the genius of Ronaldo and Messi every weekend has only taught the dullards to be quixotic and impatient rather than appreciative and wise.
But attentive Messi-watchers should have learned something else.
He always insists that no matter his prolific scoring, no matter that he produces lava-hot spurts of play which take a match away from any rival of any class he relies on a team performance.
He doesn’t think he produces one-man-wins, nor does he want anyone else to think that.
Martino, just as against City, needs to be smart enough to unite Cesc, Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets in the same starting XI.
If he doesn’t, if he thinks that a three man midfield and three out-and-out strikers will suffice in a 4-3-3 v 4-3-3 battle then Madrid will win, I’m sure of that.
As Time Goes Bye …
More, I think there’s the ‘old showman’ factor.
This is guaranteed to be Victor Valdés’ last Liga Clasíco – already stubborn as a mule, he’ll give extra to ensure that it isn’t a defeat.
Whether or not Puyol makes the squad everyone around him will be conscious that this, too, is not ‘au-revoir’ but adieu. For good.
There’s an all for one one for all spirit to this squad. He’s held in reverential affection by those around him – again, there’ll be an extra effort.
Xavi has a deal until 2016 but there’s pressure on his services for next season. Perhaps he’ll stay, only he knows. But IF he knows this might be his final Bernabéu appointment then watch him attempt to switch his ‘passometer’ into overdrive.
None of these factors win matches on their own, but they narrow the gap.
Then there is the lack of the ‘fear factor’. Most of these Barcelona players have played in the majority of their club’s last ten visits to the Bernabéu.
Those matches have yielded five wins, three draws and two defeats. A remarkable record.
None of this is to detract from Real Madrid’s status as favourites. They are four points ahead for a good reason. Carlo Ancelotti’s team haven’t lost in any competition since the 2-1 defeat to Barça back in October. The swing in their favour has been ten points since then.
For months now they have been pressing the ball with more co-ordination and energy than Barça, they have been quick and accurate in their use of the ball.
Thus far this has been Ronaldo’s season, not Messi’s. Not only is his goal tally outrageous – closer to fifty than thirty – he’s forming a wonderful partnership with Bale who keeps on serving him assists.
More, Ronaldo has long since learned to love ‘bullying’ Barcelona.
Having failed to score in his first five games against them for Madrid and Manchester United he’s subsequently hit 12 in 17 Clasícos.
Headers, breakaways, subtle touches, shots from distance, penalties – the full repertoire. Barcelona’s only successful tactic against Ronaldo is, just as when Spain play Portugal, is to stop the ball getting to him. (Back to that four man midfield and trying to get a head-lock on possession) if they fail to do that it’s almost guaranteed he’ll score again.
Tired old excuses or a Real worry?
But if there’s a case to make that the gap between the two sides has narrowed then it might pay to heed the regular references over the last two and half weeks which Ancelotti has made to ‘tiredness’ and the ‘recuperation’ of his players.
Also to the fact that one or two Madrid players, Pepe and Di Maria, have been hit by high temperatures and allergies this week.
Last weekend in Malaga there was a drop-off in creativity and intensity and while some of Ancelotti’s key men were initially rested against Schalke on Wednesday Xabi Alonso (so vital), Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo were not while Bale and Dani Carvajal were required to come on.
Should Madrid need a tiger in their tank, however, it’s the knowledge that they defeated Barcelona three times last season, twice at home once away, and three points this weekend will almost certainly put the defending champions out of the title race.
Some value? Well, Real Madrid scored four headers, spread between Rafa Varane, Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo, in last season’s Clasícos.
Spare a thought for Barça’s defenders, too. Widely lambasted when the fault is often the lack of pressing by players in front of them it’s still the case that Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal and Jordi Alba have all scored Clasíco goals in the last couple of seasons and …. Dani Alves recently scored in each leg of the Champions League tie against Manchester City. Fancy it?
The referee: his decisions distinctly helped Barcelona last October (denying Ronaldo a clear penalty) but still Martino’s players absolutely distrust him. Their hackles will be up and they’ll be in ‘protest’ mode from the get-go.
This despite the fact that with Undiano Mallenco Barcelona has a lower loss % than Madrid do under him; their rivals see massively more bookings with him (Barça 98 yellows:opponents 125 yellows) than is the case when he refs Madrid (RM 133:134 opponents), his penalty ratio goes the same way (Barça 9:3 opponents while Real Madrid 9:7 opponents). But the Barça players think he’s too slow to book, too liberal with foul-play as a tactic .. and I’d say nobody will feel a fool for taking a long look at the odds for penalties and red cards.
But to make a long story short. If Barcelona control the ball they’ll go home with no worse than a draw … and still in the title chase. If Martino selects the wrong starting XI then sit back and watch Madrid boss midfield and pick off their historic rivals.
It’s dangerous picking a winner in a game of such tight margins, but all things considered, I’m going for Barca to win it by a single goal.