Soccer

With La Liga title at stake, Real Madrid meet Barcelona in El Clasico

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The FC crew debate whether Real Madrid or Barcelona will triumph in the 266th installment of El Clasico.

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ESPN’s Fernando Palomo delves into Spain’s most storied rivalry, as Lionel Messi and Barcelona get set to take on Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid.

Across the hundreds of countries that will broadcast it live, Real Madrid against Barcelona is usually known as El Clasico. Fair enough too, as it’s a genuine all-time classic of football rivalry. But in parts of Spain, particularly where traditionalists meet and shout at each other in smoky cafes over canas of cerveza, jabbing their stogies forward with each repeated argument, this match is also called “El Derbi.”

In British terms, a derby match requires to be when a city is split asunder. When families divide down the middle, where red plays blue or green-and-white plays blue, where clubs that inhabit the same metropolitan area have distinct personalities: it might be north vs. south, rich vs. poor, dominant vs. fallow, aristocrat vs. working class. However, you’d need to be obtuse or pedantic not to allow a Barca vs. Madrid clash to be dubbed a “Derbi” in this country. It’s the game that divides Spain in a way that similar matches in England very rarely divide a country. A city, perhaps, but not the nation.

No matter the identity of your “first” club, here the majority of football fans will have a sympathy one way or the other: Viking or Culé, Merengue or Blaugrana, Madrid or Barça. Naturally, derbies are harder to predict because the motivational or psychological impact is so gigantic that “form goes out the window” isn’t a cliche: it’s a truism. Therefore it’s a pleasure to be able to bring you some certainties ahead of this Clásico-derbi at the Santiago Bernabéu on Sunday night.

First — and this you should already be firmly aware of if you’ve even got a passing interest in Spanish football — should Madrid win, then they’re champions in all but the pure arithmetic. There’s a bundle of factors, wrapped up together neatly and tidily, telling us that this is true.

Since Zinedine Zidane took over in January 2016, his Madrid teams have significantly “out-pointed” Barcelona. Not just this season or over the past few months… but for a year and a half.

Barcelona, by Andres Iniesta’s own blunt admission, are hugely erratic on the road. Inconsistency personified. If Madrid were to establish a six-point lead with a game in hand, plus the head-to-head advantage of having done better across the two Clasicos, then you can bet your livestock, that James Dean motorbike you bought at auction, your collection of Penny Blacks and the children’s college fund that Los Blancos will see that advantage home.

If.

But, let’s return to the meat in a minute. For the moment, the side plate. Another certainty is that this is a momentous ringing of the bell not just for Luis Enrique, but for Spanish football. Spin it however you like but “Lucho” has been a major player on the Spanish scene for the past 26 years. (Yes, it’s been that long since he scored the winner for Sporting Gijon over Barcelona.)

Wearing the white of Madrid, he played in 11 Clasicos — including both a 5-0 defeat and a 5-0 win — and then jumped ship to carry Barça’s threat to his old club on 18 occasions, winning eight of those and only losing three.

He’s played 29 of these classic matches as a footballer, plus five as Barca manager where his record is two wins, two defeats and a draw. More importantly he’s won the title in each of his two seasons thus far meaning that not only will there be sections of the Madrid support who still loathe him as a “traitor” (and a hugely enthusiastic one), but some where he’s feared, too.

There have been instances in living memory of a man coaching Barcelona across two distinct periods (Louis Van Gaal and the legendary Helenio Herrera are examples) but neither was a successful idea and it’s a little hard to see the concept being repeated. So while it’s impossible to be definitive on this point, it’s a decent-odds bet that this is Luis Enrique’s last ever Clasico. We shall see.

Real Madrid vs. Barcelona fixture history Historically, Real Madrid hold a slight edge vs. Barcelona and the hosts will start Sunday’s game as favourites.

More certainties?

Well, however beautiful, thrilling or definitive this match is, you can also bet your bottom dollar it’ll be stained by some kind of social media nonsense from the participants or some former players. Part of the reason that it’s a “Classic” — and part of the reason the world now loves this match so much, having only shown a passing interest until the mid-1990s — is the ill-feeling between the two. Whether you count that as sporting, cultural, political or social doesn’t really matter too much.

Sporting occasions cause us to bill and coo and praise the participants for hugging and consoling each other in moments of triumph and defeat every so often. But boy, would we tire of living this kind of Mary Poppins existence if that was happening all the time.

They call it “mala leche” here. (I know: “bad milk.” What kind of rubbish phrase is that?) Ill feeling, dislike, jealousy, revenge motifs: we all love them in sport and this match has them in spades. So to try and state that relations are at, or anywhere near, an all-time low would be wrong. However the two clubs aren’t in one of those spells where it’s grown-up and everyone gets along quite well either. Nor do they have the Romeo and Juliet of the Clasicos, Xavi and Iker Casillas, any longer.

In fact, right now there are parts of the Barcelona and Madrid squads and entourages that are like little kids who’ve just discovered a bad word. Kids who know that it’ll cause shock among the adults if they shout “bum” out loud are far more likely to continue to seek the buzz of a reaction than one who sees general disdain and boredom in reaction to his attempt to shock. That’s what much of the tit-for-tat stuff fizzing about between players (notably Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Alvaro Arbeloa, Casillas) and ex-players on social media feels like right now.

The public and the media are waiting on the edge of their seats for the next war of words, the next schism, the next “who won the battle of the insults” on Twitter before, during or after Sunday’s clash. Then there will be a response, either fake outrage or genuine anger, and so some player will produce his version of shouting “bum!” across Sunday evening and night.

But, back to the meat.

For the past few weeks, it’s looked as if the Barcelona squad are coming to the end of a cycle, when a decline in playing philosophy has met a natural (and overdue) fullness of stomach. Some of these guys, both players and staff, have been tiger-hungry for the last decade or more, hurdling challenges, winning trophies and treating complacency like a mortal enemy.

That cannot last indefinitely. It’s not human. Meanwhile, Madrid have developed two significant attributes: a group belief that no matter the circumstances they are never beaten, as well as a very deep squad in terms of performance.

Zidane has established a meritocracy on the training ground where a simple algorithm seems to state that if you train well enough for long enough, you’ll play. If you play well, you’ll be asked to play again. If enough of us do this, we’ll win everything. It’s so bloody simple when you say it or write it, so damn difficult to create and maintain.

Real Madrid vs. Barcelona match winners Lionel Messi has marginally better numbers than his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo this season.

Thus, mainly for those reasons (although not exclusively), it looked to me as if Madrid would be a good bet to hasten the end of Barcelona’s trophy cycle by winning relatively comfortably on Sunday. Yet some doubts crept in again during the Champions League matches this week.

Madrid are brutally muscular on the road. Freed of the need to “entertain” the home crowd, they entertain (me at least!) with clever, vertical, risky attacking football when they play away. At the Bernabeu, it can often look as if the need to play the “Madrid way,” showing verve and panache in putting teams to the sword — they can’t just win — weighs on them quite heavily.

It was slightly the case against Atleti a couple of weeks ago and it was very certainly the case against Bayern in midweek. In fact, against Carlo Ancelotti’s team, Madrid gave a performance that should worry their fans. Sluggish, unable to win the ball, unable to keep the ball for long: they were timid. Just atypical of almost the entire Zidane regime.

They also had to work hard for 120 minutes, which partially negates the extra 24 hours’ rest that Spain’s champions-elect had, compared to Barcelona, because of playing on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the reigning champions performed with confidence, organisation, flair and athleticism against Juventus to not much evident return — apart, perhaps, potentially the return of some self-belief and pride.

Hardly terrible ingredients to have thrown into the mix ahead of a test of fire in the Spanish capital.

There’s no Neymar for Barcelona given his suspension, but equally there’s no room for maneuver at centre-half for Madrid if there are fitness problems for Nacho and Sergio Ramos. It still feels to me that the ginseng nature of this occasion, sending energy and stamina through veins, will likely benefit Madrid enough for them to claim the win they need to be all-but-champions. But Barcelona will love the odds-against, “nobody believes in us so let’s cause a ruckus” nature of this opportunity.

Now if Lucho’s team win, it becomes a seismic moment. Madrid still have tricky European semifinals to play, while their upcoming trip to Vigo, where they’ve lost a couple of times in recent seasons, suddenly doesn’t look such a “sure thing.” The pressure would most certainly swing back sharply towards the league leaders; whether it would swing against them in a debilitating sense would depend very much on their level of tiredness, nerves, injuries, suspensions and fortunes in the Champions League.

Madrid to win by a goal: that’s my instinct. But I have, ever so occasionally, been known to tip a result incorrectly. So, there’s only one remedy. Tune in yourselves and bear witness.

Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of “Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World.” Twitter: @BumperGraham.

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