A fraught El Clasico
After a decade of being the match up between Lionel Messi’s Barcleona and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid, this weekend’s El Clasico will feature neither. Messi is injured and Ronaldo is at Juventus, so the likes of Luis Suarez, Phillipe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele for the Catalans and Gareth Bale, Isco, and Asensio for the Merengues, will have to take over.
Barcelona has been flying high with their superstar intact and their team is so strong, particularly playing at home, where they rarely lose, that Sunday’s match is leaning heavily toward the Cules. Real Madrid, on the opposite side of that spectrum, is doing poorly, sitting in seventh place to Barca’s first, and seemingly seesawing between good UEFA Champions League performances and truly poor ones.
This game has all of the earmarks of a classic match between Spain’s, and some would argue the world’s, two biggest teams. Without their respective talismans, the teams will have to rely more on cohesive team play than on the singular flash of individual talent to seal the deal. Somehow, when match-ups like this take place it is often the unsung hero or the hero-in-waiting who take over.
Dembele has been mostly unsung since his arrival at the Camp Nou and is due for a breakout performance. Coutinho and Suarez, heroes already, could be looking for a way of emphatically establishing themselves as the clear number two in their team’s pecking order. Marc-Andre Ter Stegen has been in great form and could be the difference maker.
Ivan Rakitic seems to emerge as a force in the toughest of matches, and Arturo Vidal, Rafinha and Arthur seem to be vying with each other for regular starting minutes. If Malcom or Munir El Haddadi are given playing time do not be surprised to see them rise to the occasion of this special opportunity. Finally, Sergio Busquets, the team’s vice captain, has not had a great season yet and may look at this match as a chance to jump start it.
On Madrid’s side, Luka Modric, the ultimate team player, has seen his talents go mostly a wasting as his the cast he supports has been performing poorly. Bale has been trying with mixed success to establish himself as the heir apparent to Ronaldo, Karim Benzema has been trying to justify his inclusion on the team, let alone being a starter, and Isco, Asensio, Lucas Vasquez, and Dani Ceballos, all know this is their time to make a case for starting roles or at least regular minutes at a higher plane of participation. Meanwhile, Mariano and Vinicius Junior have been waiting for their chance to showcase their wares when it matters and if they get playing time they might just risk it all.
Yet, when all is said and done, Barca are in the driver’s seat and Real are on the outs and looking in. So, for this El Clasico, it is the Merengues who are in the more desperate situation, as even a win will only bring them to within one point of the table leaders and five other teams are poised to end the weekend ahead of Madrid if they also win. Barca will emerge victorious even with a draw at home, as that result maintains their arch-rival in La Liga’s “nowheresville.”
This clasico could be the defining match for the La Liga competition if Barca wins. It will signify Real’s embarking on a comeback trail if they win. But only an emphatic Real win will have any impact on the domestic championship as only that will give Julen Lopetegui a lifeline and his charges the wind their sails have sorely lacked all season. If Barca draw or win, the La Liga trophy will be half-theirs ten games into the season and when Messi returns all bets against the Catalans are at your own risk. Could we ask for a better backdrop?