The biggest match in club football is upon us again, and our chief Spanish writer Mark Houston looks at the see-sawing nature of Barcelona and Real Madrid’s respective seasons since their last encounter in October. If you missed our earlier build up for El Clasico, with the tale of the 1943 match which finished 11-1, you can read that here.
Last time these two sides met – an encounter which saw Real Madrid comfortably dispatch Barcelona 3-1 – there was a spring in the step of Carlo Ancelotti.
The victory in El Clasico was just one of 22 in a record-breaking sequence for Los Blancos after a slow start to the season, and the following week they took top spot in La Liga for the first time in 2014-15; a position they remained in for 16 rounds of football.
On the other side, Luis Enrique had experienced a bright start to life in Catalonia but was beginning to feel the pressure.
The defeat at the Santiago Bernabeu sparked a mini collapse for the Blaugrana, and a loss in the following match to Celta Vigo gave Real the advantage in the title race as they overhauled Barca, knocking the early frontrunners back into fourth position as five teams were jockeying at the top.
It led to unrest at all levels at Barcelona, with Messi supposedly having fallen out with Enrique, who in turn appeared to be unable to turn around the bad form. At a boardroom level there was also disharmony, with an election called for the summer at the end of the season and further allegations pending involving the Neymar transfer.
But as it often happens in Spain, the tables turn for the top two. The La Liga Crisis Pendulum swings back and forth between Spain’s capital and its cultural capital.
This time around it is Carlo Ancelotti under pressure from the media and Madridistas, while stories swirl in the Spanish media of unrest amongst players – most notably a supposed falling out between the most expensive players in history, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.
Ronaldo was scoring for fun early in the season at a phenomenal rate – even by his lofty standards – and was at one point 12 goals ahead of Messi in the Pichichi.
2014 was certainly Ronaldo’s year, culminating in the Ballon d’Or – his third – and his first half of the campaign was scintillating, arguably the best patch of form in his career. 2015 has not carried on in a similar vein for the Portuguese though, and Messi has now overhauled him and has a two-goal lead as the top scorer in La Liga, while that oft-seen petulance when things aren’t going his way has been coming evermore present.
Two goals in his last seven league games is hardly a drought, but his overall contributions have been poor as well. It’s also a run which included a red card for kicking out against Cordoba as Real struggled against the bottom-placed club, and the 4-0 humiliation at the hands of city rivals Atletico Madrid where the world’s best player was virtually a spectator.
It isn’t just Ronaldo though, and the poor performances of the side as a whole – most notably in the defeat to Atleti and the 4-3 loss at home to Schalke which nearly saw their Champions League defence come to a premature end – have led to endless gossip around the position of Carlo Ancelotti. Club president Florentino Perez was forced to call an emergency press conference less than a fortnight ago to ensure the board still had faith in the Italian and the squad as a whole, but few in the media are convinced his position is safe beyond this current term.
Perez also singled out Gareth Bale for support, who has also been in poor form since the turn of the year and on the receiving end of whistles and boos from the Bernabeu crowd. Bale broke his drought last weekend against Levante though – one which had been running since January – and his celebration told the story as he covered his ears and aggressively kicked the corner flag.
The victory was their first in four matches in all competitions, but it still doesn’t appear as though Madrid have turned the corner. Ronaldo went scoreless and was jeered by the crowd, and his reaction to Bale’s opener further adds to the theories of disharmony between the two.
Meanwhile, life couldn’t be sweeter for Barcelona. They’ve won 10 of their last 11 in all competitions, sealed a comfortable passage through to the Champions League quarter-finals, and have also won through to the Copa Del Rey final after seeing off Villarreal over two legs while sitting atop the league table; a treble still very much on the cards.
The victory over Manchester City in the Champions League saw a vintage performance from Leo Messi, who has been superb since returning from the winter break. He’s scored 11 in his last 10 – including two hat-tricks – and added seven assists to take his season tallies to 43 goals and 17 assists in 35 appearances.
And while Real’s problems extend beyond Ronaldo, Messi isn’t the only Barcelona player who has found his groove.
His partners in the final third, Neymar and Luis Suarez, have both been hitting top gear, with Suarez in particular turning in some splendid performances after a slow start to his time at the Camp Nou. He’s scored eight in his last 10 appearances, but it’s been his movement off the ball and unselfish play (he’s notched 10 assists for the season so far – including squaring balls to teammates when he could easily score himself) that has had the greatest impact on the side and been a major factor in Messi’s recent performances. The Uruguayan plays a similar role to that of Karim Benzema at Real to allow his fellow attackers to shine, and at the moment it is all clicking for the current leaders who boast the best attack in the league, averaging 2.89 goals per game.
There has been a real fluidity to the Blaugrana of late, and we are perhaps finally seeing the “new” Barcelona that both Lucho and his predecessor Tata Martino were working towards: a team capable of mixing it up with the textbook Barcelona short passing as well as being ruthless on the break and in a more direct capacity when required.
It’s not all doom and gloom at the Bernabeu however, as Real are boosted by returns of Sergio Ramos and Luka Modric – who rejoins the midfield after three months on the sidelines – and their importance cannot be understated. They both provide a calming influence in their respective roles, and with them both starting in Real’s lopsided 4-3-3 / 4-4-2 shape it should be a full strength XI minus the injured James Rodriguez.
Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets should be making his return to the squad as well after a few weeks off with an ankle injury, though it will most likely be from the bench as the excellent Javier Mascherano will continue in the midfield role many have long been waiting to see him in at Barca. There should also be a start for mid-week goalscorer Ivan Rakitic, who was replaced by Xavi in a midfield that ultimately lacked industry last time the two sides met.
While the biggest names for both sides are up front, an interesting battle will be in the midfield between Andres Iniesta and his heir apparent Isco, and the prospect of watching the Spanish national team’s master and apprentice go head to head should make for exceptional viewing as both possess the ability to create something from nothing.
Often hampered by the presence of the other, more-established star names at the Bernabeu, Isco’s early struggles to get into the XI look long gone as he has now become one of the first on the teamsheet for Ancelotti, offering the same sort of majestic, mazy runs and deft passing that made compatriot Iniesta famous. The midfielder signed from Malaga has been in sensational form this campaign – particularly following the injury the James – and another top performance on one of club football’s biggest stages would confirm the 22-year-old’s arrival as a top tier footballer.
Conversely, the 30-year-old Iniesta is one of few black spots for Barcelona in recent weeks, and the midfield maestro has been far from his best for the best part of the last 18 months. He does have a proven record in the biggest matches however – none bigger than his World Cup final winner in 2010 – and with Rakitic beside him getting up and down it will require a more calm and controlling performance from Iniesta which should work in the club legend’s favour.
In the post-match analysis following the first Clasico of the season I wrote that the balance had shifted towards Real – and the way both teams headed in the following weeks it was looking like that would hold true. Five months later and the way the two teams are poised it looks like it was a premature announcement, unless Real can produce a similar performance to take the bragging rights; and, more importantly, take back the advantage in the title race.