We are but two days away from witnessing a football match featuring one of the greatest rivalries in all of global sports—Real Madrid vs. FC Barcelona. This is the Spanish Football match of the season, so far, and it comes at a time when both teams are in good standing and spirits, relative good health, and in fighting rhythm.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are tied for all-time Champions League scorers, they are both having good domestic and international seasons and they are both surrounded with stellar casts who are themselves doing well. Messi has tied for the record of most goals ever scored by a player in La Liga while Ronaldo has now scored 15 goals in his last eight games, a league record.
The game will probably introduce Luis Suarez as a starter for Barcelona alongside Messi and Neymar, and isn’t that a fantasy offensive line up. If one then looks at a Real midfield with Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and James Rodriguez pitched against a potential Barca line up of Ivan Rakitic, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, the fantasy extends to two-thirds of the pitch. Add in an Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos, for instance, looking down the field at a Gerard Pique and a Jordi Alba and the sorcery is in every corner of the pitch. But perhaps we will end up focusing on who we miss come the opening whistle, with Sergio Busquets and Gareth Bale, both doubtful for the match.
Yet, one gets the feeling that the absence of these key players will not dull the impact of this match-up. We are in for a treat of a game. If we sprinkle in the fact that Barca is four points clear of their rivals and hosts in the La Liga table, we realize Real has more at stake. If the Catalans win, they will have the inside track to the domestic title, even at this early stage.
Saturday’s Clasico will be the 229th competitive meeting between the super teams in all competitions, with Real holding the lead at 91-89, and the rivals tallying 48 draws. These titans are again in the mix of everything this year from Champions League to La Liga contention, from record chasing to record signings. But as opposed to team play ruling the day, this time it feels as if it will be the winner of the clash of individuals that tips tomorrow’s El Clasico.
Messi and company will be looking to make history at the Bernabeu with a record breaking goal and a dagger-to-the-heart win, while Ronaldo will have the same idea in mind. This will be a mano-a-mano like the world’s best strikers have rarely really had. Most of their classic encounters have had a clear victor when one or the other is not at full power, or a stalemate when they are both either playing poorly or having par seasons. This time around they are both looking to make a statement at the other’s expense, and at a time when each superstar’s supporting casts is more than capable of upstaging the marquee protagonists. Look for Lionel and Cristiano to sparkle, but watch for Javier Hernandez, or Pedro, Suarez or James, Munir El Haddadi or Kroos, Ramos or Neymar to step up and surprise us.
Perhaps the best indicator of how this contest will tilt will be who starts and in what formation. How the coaches have prepared for their special rivals might just provide the tipping straw to mix the metaphors. If Bale is absent will Real coach, Carlo Ancelotti, allow Chicharito a chance to seize his moment in a formation that gives the Mexican room to maneuver? If Busquets does not play will Barca coach, Luis Enrique, opt to ask Javier Mascherano to play the role the Argentine thrived in this summer? Will we see Enrique use a hungry Suarez to advantage or only allow him a cameo? Will Carlo become timid with his offense at precisely the wrong time? Will Enrique throw caution the wind and start his most offensive cast? For me, tonight is half of the winning moment. It will be the coaches who make the one tweak that will give their stars the opening they need to make the difference. Tomorrow, that player, exploiting that opportunity, will win the game. I just hope both coaches pick well and thus treat us to an unpredictable finale.