Yet another Clásico–the two Spanish superpowers meet again today, in what will be their 8th battle in the past 9 months (see table below). Real Madrid hosts Barcelona at the majestic Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, for the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarterfinal tie. Kickoff is at a very Spanish 10pm in Madrid, which corresponds to 4pmET/1pmPT here in the US (where ESPN Deportes and GolTV will be televising the match, and ESPN3.com will be streaming it live; see livesoccertv.com for additional TV listings).
But the “yet” is telling–after all those intensely anticipated and intensely played matches over the past year, even we have Clásico fatigue. It does seem like the buildup to this one is muted compared to the previous matches, perhaps because it’s a Copa del Rey quarterfinal. The domestic cup competition is certainly a distant third in importance to these teams, far behind the Champions League and La Liga titles. It’s one thing if these two were meeting in a one-off final for the Copa, as they did last April, in what turned out to be a thrilling match (see our detailed breakdown of the film from that match here and here). But for them to have to meet twice more in the quarterfinals just seems a bit..unseemly.
That Copa del Rey victory was Madrid’s sole sucess in recent memory in this rivalry. Consider the run of results over the past few years, stretching back to the beginning of Pep Guardiola’s reign, which started in the summer of 2008, when Barcelona let Frank Rijkaard go and promoted Josep up from managing the B team (annotated with links to previous CultFootball posts about certain of the matches):
|13 December 2008||Barcelona||2 – 0||Real Madrid||La Liga|
|2 May 2009||Real Madrid||2 – 6||Barcelona||La Liga|
|29 November 2010||Barcelona||5 – 0||Real Madrid||La Liga|
|16 April 2011||Real Madrid||1 – 1||Barcelona||La Liga|
|20 April 2011||Barcelona||0 – 1||Real Madrid||Copa del Rey final|
|27 April 2011||Real Madrid||0 – 2||Barcelona||Champions League (semifinal, 1st leg)|
|3 May 2011||Barcelona||1-1||Real Madrid||Champions League (semifinal, 2nd leg)|
|14 August 2011||Real Madrid||2-2||Barcelona||Spanish Super Cup (1st leg)|
|21 August 2011||Barcelona||3-2||Real Madrid||Spanish Super Cup (2nd leg)|
|10 December 2011||Real Madrid||1-3||Barcelona||La Liga|
Confirming that Clásico fatigue has set in, on this past Monday’s Guardian Football Weekly podcast Sid Lowe called in from Spain to the crew in London, as he usually does to commentate on all matter relating to Spanish football. Listen from the 29′ minute mark–he first reports on Madrid and Barcelon’s recent less-than-stellar recent form. Madrid came from behind last weekend to win 2-1 against lowly Mallorca, via goals from Higuain and Callejón (more on Callejón below). Meanwhile Barcelona were down 2-0 at home against Real Betis before ultimately winning 4-2 (and that after they’d points earlier this month in a yet another draw against local rivals Espanyol in the Catalan derby), and slips in this interesting analysis: “Betis were great..Betis really went for Barcelona. I think they showed that if you put pressure on Barcelona high up, and you get at those players who quite aren’t so good at bringing the ball out and maintaining possession, in particular because Pique wasn’t playing, then you can actually cause Barcelona some problems.” We’re curious who “those players” refers to–Mascherano? In any case, Pique is expected to be back in the traditional center back pair with Puyol, so it’s a moot point for today’s match–but something to keep in mind.
He’s then asked about today’s Clásico, and replies that even in Spain there’s a bit of weariness with respect to this match: “there is a very slight sense of–I don’t if I’d call it boredom, I don’t think it’s quite boredom–but a sort of tiredness of the Clásico.” Then Sid says–just as his dog starts barking, as it curiously almost always does at some point during his calls from Spain–that Casillas was quoted as saying the rivalry has become “decaffeinated when the teams play each other too often.”
Well, today’s decaffeinated match, most eyes will of course be on Messi and Ronaldo. As well they should be. But a soccer team is really a complex system. Certainly there are moments of individual brilliance, especially, as we’ve seen, from players like Messi and Ronaldo. But those moments have to happen within the context of the team. So watch Messi–but watch his movement off the ball as well as on it, and watch his combinations with Xavi and Iniesta especially. Further deep, watch Busquest–probably the least-liked Barca player, but an essential one. He’ll drop deep at times, into the center of defense with Pique and Puyol (especially when the wingback, Dani Alves and likely Adriano, get forward for width in attack); he’ll be called on to intercept and tackle to break up the opposition’s attack; and he’ll initiate the Barcelona moves forward, combining as well with Xavi and Iniesta in the center.
On the opposite side, it sounds like Sami Khedira (defensive/holding midfielder) and Angel di Maria (attacking winger) are out for Madrid due to injury. They are key players for Madrid, but the Galacticos have talent in reserve. We’ll likely see Ozil in the center ahead of Lass Diarra and enforcer Pepe (they’ll be tasked with trailing and tackling Messi), with Ronaldo on one wing and youngster José Callejón on the other. Callejón slipped into the starting lineup in Madrid’s latter, largely meaningless Champions League group stage matches–and started scoring at such a clip that he’s continued to start. He’s 24 years old, came up through the Madrid youth system, but then went to Catalonia for a 3-year stint with Espanayol, before returning to the fold this summer.