John Carlin's View from Spain: Clash of cultures and dazzling talents worth waiting for

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The Independent Football

Two and a half months is a long time in football yet one thing we can state with certainty is that, when Barcelona and Chelsea meet in the Champions' League on 22 February, the best attack in Europe will pit itself against the best defence. The most accomplished circus troupe will take on the most ruggedly efficient machine.

With equal certainty we know that the Arsenal-Real Madrid game is an enigma. Impossible to predict at the moment for the simple reason that we have next to no clue as to what will be the style, strength or composition of Real's side come February, let alone the identity of the manager.

Most certain of all, though, is this; the renewal of Anglo-Spanish hostilities offers us a football feast. Big name clubs with big name players. Established superstars and some of the game's best rising talent. Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Frank Lampard and Thierry Henry, on the one side; Robin van Persie, the Argentinian Leo Messi and the Brazilian Robinho on the other. Plus the not-insignificant likes of Zinedine Zidane, Robert Pires, David Beckham, Samuel Eto'o, Roberto Carlos, John Terry and Ashley Cole.

The two pairings would have graced the semi-finals of the world's top club competition, but rather than bemoan the early exit of two of these four great clubs we should celebrate the fact they are playing each other at all. Games like these don't come along every day. Especially not games like Barcelona-Chelsea (though, of course, the two did meet in the competition last season). Whoever wins that one will surely become favourites to lift the cup in Paris in May.

Barcelona have not come across a defence as formidable as Chelsea's this season. No one in Spain plays with so much muscle in midfield. But neither have Chelsea encountered a team as formidable in attack. Right now no club is playing more scintillating football than Barcelona, who have been routinely racking up four- and five-goal victories in the past two months, both in Europe and in Spain.

Chelsea may also be sure that Ronaldinho and Eto'o will be at their devastating peak for a game of this magnitude, and thirsting for revenge after last season's defeat by the Londoners. Then the Barcelona defence looked very fragile, and it remains the team's weak point. But weak only relatively. They have stiffened the middle of the field significantly with the return from injury of the Brazilian Edmilson, the return to form of the hard Mexican, Rafael Marquez, and the arrival of the Dutchman Mark van Bommel.

But the most significant difference between this Barcelona and last season's is the emergence of Messi. Only 18 years old, he looks if he could become a dominant figure in world football in a very short time, very possibly even a star of next year's World Cup.

He has quick feet and quick legs, meaning he is very tricky and very fast. He is also physically tough and fearlessly competitive. With the possible exception of Wayne Rooney, there is no other young player more coveted by the rest of Europe's big clubs.

Chelsea have it in them to win, of course, but Terry and company will face no stiffer test this season. Barça have developed a telepathic understanding in recent months that, allied to their talent and speed, makes them beautiful to watch.

If the Catalans are in their prime, Real Madrid are in a curious phase of reconstruction, with two ageing superstars - Zidane and Roberto Carlos - on the wane, a couple - Ronaldo and Beckham - who may still be at the top of their game and another pair who might become as big in the world game as Rooney and Messi undoubtedly shall.

Robinho has not conquered the Spanish league the way his legion of admirers in Brazil thought he would. Not yet, anyway. There again, Ronaldinho made little impact when he arrived at Paris St-Germain and, during his first six months at Barcelona, offered more flash than substance. Robinho has talent in abundance, but he lacks presence. The jury is out on him in Spain, but mainstream opinion in Brazil is that he is the biggest thing since Pele - in which case Arsenal might be wise to prepare themselves for the worst.

Real have another player who looks destined to be a colossus of the game. He is Sergio Ramos and, like Real's old captain Fernando Hierro, he can play in midfield or central defence. Or, indeed, at left-back. Only 19, he has already become Real's de facto leader, commanding the pitch with the assurance, if not quite the aggression (though he is hard), of a Roy Keane. (Ramos is the main reason why Real did not buy the Irishman, having seriously flirted with the idea.)

An almost certain future captain not only of Real but also of Spain, he is fast, super-fit, strong and has a fine touch with both feet. He scores goals from free-kicks with his feet and with his head from Beckham's crosses. Excellent in the air, he will score a lot of goals from set-plays as his career unfolds.

Part of the fun for English fans, especially those who do not support either Arsenal or Chelsea, will be watching Ramos, Robinho and Messi play. As to who will win, if Betis, who are bottom of the Spanish league, can beat Chelsea, Barcelona, who are top and cruising, certainly can.

Arsenal against Real is anybody's guess. With Real likely to spend big in the January transfer window, we just do not have enough information as to who will be in and who will be out come February to make a balanced judgement.

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