clásico conundrums

you would think that most of the world’s soccer eyes would be cast upon european competition this week. and with so many intriguing plot lines for champions league match day 5, it would be normal to think that way (my favorite: will liverpool be able to pull off another european miracle and keep their hopes of advancing alive? probably not!). but this isn’t normal footballing week.

"el clásico can often be a testy affair," pepe tries to explain to messi

no, this is the week of el clásico.

and let’s get this straight before we go any further: there is only one true clásico rivalry. many rivalries around the world have tried to claim the title for themselves. there’s the completely ridiculously titled superclásico between MLS’s l.a. galaxy and chivas usa (though there is a budding rivalry developing between the teams that share the home depot center). there’s also the similarly titled el súper clásico between mexico’s chivas de guadalajara and club américa. the heated rivalry between argentina’s river plate and boca juniors, also known as the superclásico, might have the most legitimate reason to claim the name.

but none of those rivalries hold a candle to the real el clásico, between spain’s real madrid and barcelona. in my humble opinion, this is the world’s biggest soccer rivalry (my apologies to scotland’s old firm rivalry between rangers and celtic as a close second) and probably the world’s biggest sports rivalry period (some ohio state and michigan fans probably just closed their browser windows). none of them have the cultural significance of el clásico though, which polarizes the entire spanish nation along the lines of the capital city and the defiant catalunya movement.

the two clubs have combined to win 50 of the 78 domestic league titles thus far, with the runner up often times being the other club. throw in that madrid have won the european crown a staggering 9 times, and barcelona having won the champions league twice in the last four years, and you begin to see the magnitude of the rivalry.

this year’s 155th el clásico is particularly appealing due to the influx of star names to each clubs’ rosters. of course i’m talking about the addition of the “new galácticos” into madrid’s roster: kaká, xabi alonso, karim benzema and the spectacular cristiano ronaldo. barça already had a squad deep with world class talents (xavi, iniesta, thierry henry and the mercurial lionel messi), but the catalan club felt it necessary to make their own big splash by bringing in zlatan ibrahimovic.

with the potential for so much offensive firepower, the spanish press has been drooling about the match up for nearly a month. but a host of injuries on both sides of the trenches is threatening to rob the game of much of its star appeal:

  • real’s ronaldo is coming off a lengthy spell in the training room, having last played for los blancos in their 3-1 champions league win over marseille on september 30. prior to that though, the portuguese attacker had scored an unprecedented nine goals in seven first team appearances.
  • barça are sweating on the fitness of their “atomic flea,” having seen messi carted off from their weekend draw with athletic bilbao. it was originally feared that he had suffered a torn thigh, though it appears the injury is not quite that serious. the argentinian wünderkid has been in sensational form this season too, having netted eleven times and contributing five assists in all competitions this season.
  • the blaugrana are also awaiting the return of their star summer signing, as ibrahimovic has also been sidelined for the last ten days with a thigh strain. the big swede will be particularly keen to return in the midweek fixture against his former club inter milan. he’s also been quite prolific this term, having scored eight times in thirteen appearances.
  • barcelona are also being hit hard by the swine flu, with eric abidal, yaya toure and rafael marquez all having been diagnosed with the H1N1 virus.

also, neither team is experiencing a great run of form at the moment, at least by their high standards. barça have only won twice in their last five outings, though the other three matches were ties. this dip in results has allowed their hated rivals to reclaim the top spot in la liga. and though madrid are 4-0-1 in their last five with no losses, this follows the embarrassing 0-4 drubbing by lowly third division side alcorcon to knock them out of the copa del rey.

add in the peculiar situations that each club finds themselves in with their champions league groups, and the looming el clásico this weekend becomes that much more complex.

can ronaldo regain his golden touch after such a lengthy spell on the sidelines?

real have the (slightly) more comfortable position at the moment. currently sitting tied with a.c. milan on points at the top of group C, however los blancos are behind the italians based on head-to-head results. however, they can’t rest on their laurels as marseille is just a point behind them. ronaldo has been declared fit for their clash with group minnows f.c. zurich, and manager manuel pelligrini will feel the pressure to put his star man on the pitch to ensure the result and improve their chances of moving on from the group. my message to the gaffer: leave ronaldo on the bench for the start of the match. there’s no reason to risk him before el clásico, so just bring him on for a short cameo towards the end of the match to help him get his legs back.

barcelona’s champions league future is far less certain, as the defending champs sit third in their group and are in real danger of not qualifying for the knockout stage. if they lose today’s high profile clash against inter milan, and russian high-flyers rubin kazan beat dynamo kiev, then the blaugrana will be out. suddenly under pressure manager pep guardiola might feel it necessary to risk his injured stars in this match to bolster his side’s chances of advancing.  if i were in his shoes, i don’t know that i wouldn’t risk them them either with so much at stake. however, should either messi or zlatan not make the el clásico line up at the nou camp this weekend, guradiola knows it will dent the morale of his side.

let us also not forget that madrid have a debt to repay in this weekend’s match of matches. at the tail end of last season, barça strutted into madrid’s santiago bernabéu stadium and thrashed the home side 6-1. and while a similar retaliation is what the pro-madrista press are calling for, if real leave barcelona this weekend with a point it will be a success.

however, if madrid can wrestle all three points away from the match, it could be the turning point of both teams’ seasons. a four point gap at the summit awaits los blancos if they can win. and though that doesn’t sound like much, in spain it can certainly swing the momentum one way or the other (i’m holding my breath for it to swing to madrid’s side!)

the heavy weight of lofty expectations sits on both teams shoulders coming into this match up. unfortunately, much of the game’s script could be written before the sunday kick off, depending on who does and doesn’t see the pitch in the champions league matches today and tomorrow.

let’s hope for a lack of injuries this week and full strength sides at the weekend, as it could be a clásico full of fireworks.

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