The mother of all football clashes: Barcelona against Real Madrid. El Clasico, as it is known in the Spanish press.
Adding to the significance of this sold-out match at the Nou Camp is the fact that both Real Madrid and Barcelona, two most successful teams in Spain, are currently first and second in the Primera Liga.
Real are 4 points ahead of Barcelona and they will sign off the year as champions, regardless of this result. Both teams are in a rich vein of form - Real having won 4 of their last 5 La Liga matches while Barca have a perfect home record this season.
Scratching the wound of their rival, Real Madrid snubbed their fallen star with a disparaging remark. Sporting director Pedrag Mijatovic said he would not consider Ronaldinho even if he had the chance to sign him. Barcelona was equally sacarstic in their response. Frank Rijkaard replied that he would not sign Raul even if he was offered on a platter. The two “rejects” happen to be among the most illustrious players ever to grace La Liga but remember, anything goes in this no-holds barred match.
To understand why this contest gets Spain all tingling with excitement, despite both clubs separated by nearly 700 km, a quick historical lesson is in order. Barcelona represents Catalonia, a northeast region of Spain, which strives for a distinct identity and greater autonomy. The locals never consider themselves Spanish even till today.
The centuries of rivalry between Catalonia and Castilla (home of Real Madrid) came to a head during the rule of Francisco Franco, lasting from the Spanish civil war in 1936 till his death almost 40 years later. The Franco dictatorship suppressed the Catalan culture ruthlessly and it was only at the Nou Camp that locals can express their identity freely with displays of Catalan flags and roaring Catalan cheers.
Real Madrid, on the other hand, symbolizes the state repressive regime under Franco. In the eyes of the Catalans, it is a Good vs Evil battle and they take immense pleasure in a win against Real Madrid - to compensate for their political and social loss. After Franco’s death, the rivalry is stoked by television coverage and four national sports dailies.
The fans were reminded of the club’s slogan, “More than a club,” this week when club president Joan Laporta agreed to dedicate part of ticket sales from this match to the Federació Llull, a cultural organization which encourages the spread of the Catalan language since 1990.
Laporta said: “It is our responsibility to support such activities. We do it for our sense of national dignity … for our culture, because the Catalan language is a sign of identity for Barça.”
A sports club supporting language study - this is an issue best left to politicians while we focus on the soccer aspect. Who will be the victor from this encounter? Tough call. Barca employ a quick passing game when moving forward but their weakness lies in a napping defense which Real will certainly exploit. They had conceded early goals previously and staying focussed for the entire 90 minutes is essential. But at home, it is still an unbreached fortress for Barcelona.
Real Madrid will be kept on their toes as the most dangerous Barcelona player is back. He is none other than Samuel Eto’o, La Liga’s most clinical finisher. The 3 times African Player of the Year scored 24 goals in his first La Liga season and 26 goals the next season. He missed one-third of last season with a knee injury but still registered 11 goals in 19 league appearances. This season, Eto’o continues to spend time in the treatment room but he looked sharp with two masterful goals against a clueless Valencia last week.
Eto’o chief strengths lie in his creativity and cunning runs from deep positions instead of lurking in the penalty box. That makes him extremely difficult to mark and once he is within the striking zone, the goalkeeper is helpless. Barcelona’s attacking flair is turning into goals with Eto’o as the focal point. The lad loves playing against Real Madrid and if they do not neutralise him, half the battle is lost. Fabio Canavarro will have his hands full organizing the defense.
Thierry Henry is also expected to join the team after a long layoff from a lower back injury. The former Gunner has scored five goals in the Spanish league and two in the Champions League this season. If he hit his optimum capability and link up with Eto’o, Barcelona will be unstoppable. Unfortunately, without match fitness, he is likely to be benched as Rijkaard opts for Eto’o and Giovanni dos Santos in a 2-man frontline.
Real Madrid can be thankful that Lionel Messi is out after tearing his left thigh muscle last weekend. The memory of Messi’s hat-trick, including a stoppage time equalizer last season to save Barcelona from an embarrassing 3-0 defeat must still be fresh in their minds. In star-studded Barca, Ronaldinho and Deco are able backups and can cause major problems if left unchecked.
Ruud van Nistelrooy will be the main threat when Real launch the counter-attacks. Sergio Ramos is also dangerous with his overlapping runs. Robinho, his wife newly pregnant, is full of trickery and can draw lots of fouls from Barcelona with his dribbling and ball holding ability. As for Raul, he is no longer terrorizing defenders as in his prime days but he remains a man for the big occasions and will be keen to show Rijkaard that he is far from being a spent force.
I don’t think the tension between both teams will be as high as in the past. Certainly, we won’t see the bathing of a pig head which greets Luis Figo. Real Madrid coach Schuster will see to that. He is a player highly regarded in both Real and Barca, having won La Liga and Spanish Cup winners’ medals at both clubs.
Schuster will receive a warm reception when he steps out of the tunnel on Sunday but after he ends Barcelona’s perfect home record, there is no telling if there will be any goodwill left.
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