Saturday, November 28, 2009

Barcelona v. Real Madrid

I spent all of three seconds thinking of a catchy title for this post. But let's face it - no further introduction is necessary. Barcelona v. Real Madrid says it all. The biggest club game in the world will kickoff tomorrow, Sunday November 29, 2009 at 1:00 p.m. ET from The Camp Nou in Barcelona. GolTV and ESPNDeportes will simulcast the match Stateside.

The historical and political context paints this match as a battle between the centrist capital and the Catalan metropolis. Barcelona's own marketing campaign feeds fuel to the fire, with its constant reminders that Barca is "mes que un club." But make no mistake, the game tomorrow will be played on the pitch, eleven v. eleven. And that's where the real stories are. The Spanish press has touted this game as a test of club philosophies - cartera (wallet) contra cantera (youth system). Uncle Florentino whipped out the wallet and bought the best. Barca, so the story goes, has bred talent for ages. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Barca has always stressed its cantera, and since Cruyff has carved out a footballing aesthetic very unique to the blaugrana. But the real story is that two of Barca's three European Cups came with this group. That is, Barca's golden generation is not a constant given, but we are experiencing it right now. As Xavi rightly observed at midweek, Real Madrid have been the victim of Barcelona's explosive success domestically and internationally, and were forced to compete or be completely eclipsed in the shadow or Barca's greatness. Of course within this metanarrative of this philosophical inquiry are those great players, whether purchased or created, who will decide this matchup.

The big names we know: Messi, Ronaldo, Xavi, Kaka, Ibrahimovic, Benzema, Iniesta, Henry, Casillas, Puyol, Sergio Ramos. And the small names, well we know those too: Xabi Alonso, Lass Diarra, Yaya Toure, Abidal, Valdes, Pepe, Alibiol. If Real were called the galacticos for their previous arrangement of stars on the pitch, then the number of stars on display tomorrow will form a complex new constellation in the Camp Nou. One or more players from these national teams will be represented tomorrow: Brazil, Argentina, Spain, France, Portugal, and Holland (mostly on the bench).

But the big names are all question marks. Ronaldo is only just back from his fifty-five day layover with an ankle injury. Messi and Ibra too are playing from being on the mend. Benzema has yet to explode, and Kaka has been strictly underwhelming this season. Albiol will be a gametime decision, as will Messi. Will Henry play? But the individual question marks lead to recent form, an area where Barcelona becomes the clear favorite. Though a recent run of ties cost Barcelona the Liga lead, Real has been winning but just barely. Still disjointed and licking their wounds from the Ronaldo injury, only (who else) "el pipita" Higuain has kept the capital's side in it with his now old hat clutch goals. Real's last two performances, both at home, finished 1-0 to inferior opposition. They beat Racing Santander last weekend with the help of an incorrect offside call that would have given Racing the tie. Against FC Zurich at midweek Real fell victim to a worrying trend - consistently playing down to their opposition. Just as with AC Milan, Real played a formidable if unlucky first half and could have gone in 2 or 3 up at half instead of 1-0. But the second half saw a listless team almost give up a tie in the Bernabeu against a weaker side that eventually lost all respect for the merengues and attacked repeatedly for the tie. Quite the opposite took place the day before at the Camp Nou, where a Barca side missing Messi and Ibra put on a clinic against Serie A leaders Inter Milan. Even Mou admitted only one team actually played any football. Cruyff kindly reminded everyone that we didn't learn anything we didn't already know - that Barcelona plays about a thousand times better than Real Madrid right now.

The bulletin board material exchanged this week is too much to discuss in a novel, much less this post, and who knows how much is misquoted or hammed up for spectacle. The reiterative topics such as Guardiola on the 270 million euro spending spree, Ronaldo-dependence (a Catalan play on last year's accusation by the Madrid press of "Messi-dependence"), Barca's feeling slighted by being second and playing better, Pellegrini saying the two teams aren't so different etc... litter the four newspapers that have devoted almost an entire week to hyping this game up.

But truth be told everyone knows these three things:

1) A clasico is always special;
2) A clasico is completely unpredictable; and
3)It's being played in Spain - so "There Will Be Goals."

Both teams are setting out to attack, or so they claim, but we'll have to see how it plays out. For me, a tie would be a victory for Real playing away, not to mention the competitive flavor this result might lead to as Sevilla and Valencia get a chance to draw nearer to the two giants. That said, anything can happen, and anything probably will. So after the Arsenal v. Chelsea appetizer, join the world and watch the clasico, consider it a World Cup warm up session.

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