Cristiano Ronaldo, chasing a hat-trick of hat-tricks, will be relishing taking on depleted Barcelona in El Clasico
Drop everything you’re doing at 6.50pm (BST) on Sunday. Barcelona welcome, or should that simply be host, old foes Real Madrid at the Camp Nou in the first Clasico meeting of the Liga season. It’s a game the football world watches and it’s a game that, despite the sides meeting six times last year in all competitions and five the year before, as well as twice already this season in the Super Cup, has not been diluted as fears had suggested.
Interestingly, it’s a game that will be played earlier in the season than any other Clasico match in the league for over a decade. For fourteen years, to be exact, when the Catalans visited the Santiago Bernabeu in mid-September in 1998 for a match that finished 2-2. You have to go back to 2006 for the last time the sides met in October and the fixture has traditionally been played towards Christmas in recent years, with the reverse game taking place in April or May.
The change, according to reports in the Spanish media, is down to the country’s football authority looking to help the Spanish giants on the European front later in the season. In recent campaigns both sides have been forced to mix the regular, sometimes fortnight-long intensity of a Liga Clasico clash with crucial matches in the latter stages of the Champions League. Last season’s second league meeting between the teams came just days after Madrid were knocked out of Europe by Bayern Munich and Barcelona suffered the same fate against Chelsea. The 2010-11 season was even more manic with a Copa del Rey final thrown in the mix too.
Little did the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) know, then, just how crucial Sunday’s Clasico could be in the race for the title.
To write a season, or a title race, off after just seven games would be foolish in any competition. Things – season-defining things – can happen. Luck can perhaps play a part in changing the course of a campaign. Injuries can mount up, momentum can swing. Victory for Barcelona on Sunday won’t clinch the title back for the Blaugrana and it won’t see Jose Mourinho’s men throw in the towel, but it will give Tito Vilanova’s men a firm advantage. The kind of advantage that, if they end up throwing away, won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
Of course, the players are playing down the importance of the game, in context with the outcome in the league at least. I doubt you’d catch many Barcelona players saying anything else with the risk of shooting themselves in the foot further down the line. Cesc Fabregas said: “A victory for us will not settle the Liga title; firstly because it’s far too early in the season and secondly because it’s Real Madrid we are talking about here.”
As things stand the gap is eight points in Barca’s favour. A sluggish start for Madrid allowed their bitter rivals the early lead, and they took it with a 100 per cent winning start to their domestic campaign. Eight points after just six games. This despite Los Blancos beating Barca on away goals in the Super Copa at the start of the season. A smooth start to Vilanova’s term, a minor on-pitch spat between Lionel Messi and the returning David Villa aside. In the Spanish capital problems. Ronaldo “sad”, results not going well, Sergio Ramos in dispute with his boss. Things were far from rosy at the Bernabeu.
Madrid have picked up in recent weeks, however, spurred on by the come-from-behind victory against Manchester City in the Champions League. Four straight wins in all competitions, a happy Ronaldo scoring hat-tricks in the last two games – at Ajax in midweek and against Deportivo at the weekend – new signings Luka Modric and Michael Essien seamlessly integrating into Madrid’s methods. The momentum could have changed slightly at the weekend had Barca not pulled a magical 3-2 win at Sevilla out of the bag just when they needed it. Trailing 2-1, the visitors scored twice late on to snatch the win. A positive for Barcelona? Definitely. A positive for Madrid in seeing Sevilla trouble the Catalans as they had? Undoubtedly.
There are always plenty of mini battles when it comes to these types of games. Messi v Ronaldo is the obvious one that comes up time and time again. It’s relevant this time, with Messi out-of-form by his standards in front of goal. No goals in the last three games, although he played a part in a number of them. In contrast, his Portuguese rival has netted six in his last two. A hat-trick in each, and plenty of smiles on the face of Madrid’s talisman after his early season sadness. He’s scored in his last four visits to the Camp Nou, too, shredding that tag of being unable to star in the big games. His winner in Catalonia last season pretty much wrapped-up the title for Los Blancos.
The off-the-pitch action between the two sides has been red-hot in recent seasons too. Pep Guardiola and Mourinho never saw eye-to-eye when they went to battle. Mourinho and Vilanova, now boss of Barca but Pep’s former assistant certainly did though – quite literally. Last season’s Super Copa meeting between the teams saw the ‘Special One’ gouge the eye of Vilanova. The pair have come head-to-head since in this season’s Super Copa but this will be the first time they’ve met in La Liga. We wait with interest to see what unfolds.
Although Barcelona have the early-season momentum firmly behind them, the pre-match team news certainly makes grim reading for Vilanova. A shoulder injury suffered by Carles Puyol in Benfica in midweek has ruled the experienced defender out and Gerard Pique, usually Puyol’s centre-back partner, will also be missing through injury. That leaves Javier Mascherano playing alongside Alex Song at the back. Although Mascherano has adapted relatively well to playing there following his move from Liverpool, Song has yet to do the same. Madrid’s forward line will no doubt be licking their lips at the prospect. The Blaugrana may be producing plenty of high-quality attacking players from La Masia, but they’re yet to do the same in defence. Madrid’s squad should be at full-strength, Essien-permitting. Kaka showed signs of his old self in the 4-1 win at Ajax in midweek, too, adding further options to Madrid’s star-studded squad.
Get ready to hold on to something. The first Clasico league meeting of the season is upon us.
Follow Nicholas on Twitter @nicholasriggTagged in: Barcelona, cristiano ronaldo, el clasico, José Mourinho, real madrid
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