Real Madrid v Barcelona: There's more to this El Clasico than Cristiano Ronaldo versus Lionel Messi

A look ahead to Sunday's hotly-anticipated contest at the Bernabeu

Think of El Clasico and you think of the best players in the world doing battle for two of the biggest clubs in the world in two of the best stadiums in the world. You think Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Figo, Pep Guardiola, Johan Cruyff and Alfredo Di Stefano to name but a few. You think eye gauging, pig’s heads and touchline tussles. You think leagues being won and lost and careers being made or derailed. In the prolonged build-up you feel excitement but for fans, players and staff at both clubs there’s a feeling that often prevails: fear.

Such is the intensity of the duel and the importance not only for bragging rights but potentially for silverware that a huge weight rests on the shoulders of the 22 players that run out on to the pitch whenever Spain’s two biggest clubs meet. The duo have long dominated in La Liga - although Atletico Madrid are finally offering an alternative at the top - meaning results don’t only keep one set of fans happy but they could also decide the direction of the title.

For the past five seasons that direction has mostly been to Catalonia with the Blaugrana winning four of the last five Ligas. Barca have been feared not only in Spain but across the world as Guardiola set them on their way to world dominance. In Madrid they could only watch on with envious eyes as big bucks were splashed but little could stop the trophy-winning machine that was FC Barcelona.

Jose Mourinho did his best to stop that conveyor belt of trophies with a Copa del Rey success in his first season at the Bernabeu, a 1-0 extra-time win against Barca in Valencia, before winning the title the following campaign. Now Carlo Ancelotti has taken Los Blancos a step further. It seems a long time since Barca were the underdogs going into a Clasico contest but on Sunday night at 8pm Ancelotti’s on-song Blancos will be favourites to win the second meeting between the sides this season and all-but end Barca’s quest to retain their title. Not only that but, unlike Mourinho’s one-year title glory, it could signal a significant shift of dominance in Spain.

 

Ever since the capital club suffered a 5-0 defeat at the Camp Nou in Mourinho’s first Clasico as manager in 2010 there has been a sense of fear from the Bernabeu. The ‘Special One’ famously used centre-back Pepe in a holding midfield role to try and hack down magical Messi at every opportunity in the Champions League double-headers of the same season and Madrid’s tactics against their old foes reeked of fear, fear that often played into the hands of their opponents. Those tactics didn’t win the favour of the fans or those high in power at the Bernabeu.

Now the boot will be on the other foot. Tata Martino won’t implement such defensive tactics at the Bernabeu but his side will make the trip to the Spanish capital with the fear of suffering a defeat that would leave them with a huge mountain to climb to retain their crown - not that their players will admit to it. The Catalans trail Madrid by four points going into the match and a seven-point gap in chase of a side that has not lost since October, when Barca inflicted a 2-1 defeat on them at the Camp Nou, would see even the most staunch of Barca fans throw in the towel.

Madrid have fancied their chances in Clasico clashes in recent seasons, they always do, but this time there is a quiet confidence amongst players and fans that Los Blancos could produce one of their most complete victories over Barca for some time. That’s not arrogance, but Madrid have been flying since that defeat in Catalonia and few would bet against them not only winning La Liga, but scooping an historic treble with a Copa del Rey final date against Barca to come next month and a possible tenth European crown still possible.

Since that defeat Madrid have not lost in 31 matches in all competitions. Ancelotti’s side trailed Barca by five points coming into 2014 and they haven’t just closed the gap going into the business end of the season, they’ve turned it on its head. They’ve been propelled by their ‘Dos Torpedos’ of Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, with the former leading the Liga goalscoring charts and the latter leading the assists charts. Many questions may have been asked about the Welshman’s price tag but despite an injury-hit first few months, Bale has forged a formidable partnership with his Portuguese partner.

It’s not only been Madrid’s big names that have shone, however. Luka Modric has swiftly become a fans’ favourite at the Bernabeu and one of the first names down on the team sheet, while Madrid’s defence, notably leaky in recent seasons, has tightened up to be strong and stubborn, enough to limit Raphael Varane to the bench on his return from injury. Angel Di Maria, who looked to have been cast aside with Mesut Ozil following Bale’s arrival, has a new lease of life in Madrid’s middle three. Looks for a weak spot and it’s hard to find. Ancelotti has turned Madrid into a real force from back to front after adjusting from a 4-2-3-1 approach to 4-3-3.

While Madrid have improved Barca have declined and off-the-field problems have not helped. The on-going Neymar case, which resulted in Sandro Rossell resigning as president, sent shockwaves through the club and manager Tata Martino’s future is still up in the air. Unlike Bale and Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar have not set the world alight and since November the Catalans have suffered five defeats after previously being unbeaten in all competitions. There is a tension at the Camp Nou that has usually been reserved for the Bernabeu in recent seasons There are not such tensions in the all-white camp.

It’s helped that Ancelotti has instilled a calmer approach and demeanour in setting about his work. For the previous three campaigns a Clasico meant all-out warfare with Mourinho starting the contests in the press room and in the weeks building up to the match. The Italian’s more low-key approach has not fanned any flames and that should suit his in-form side going into Sunday’s game. A sense of relaxation, a sense of the momentum continuing. No extra pressure is needed, the players already know how important these matches are.

Madrid will be favourites but Barca will be somewhat of a wounded animal following the defeats in recent months that have led to this match being a must-not-lose affair for Martino and his men. Three months ago it could have been a game that threatened to thwart Madrid’s efforts for the title - how things change. Barca showed they still have plenty to offer last week, however, with a resounding 7-0 victory over Osasuna that will send them into Sunday’s match in more confident mood. Messi scored a hat-trick, ensuring he became the club’s leading scorer of all time and ensuring Los Blancos did not take their eye off him completely, not that they would.

Ronaldo and Co will also have to get past a Victor Valdes who could be playing in his final Clasico match at the Bernabeu. The Spanish stopper will leave the club at the end of the season and although Madrid could still meet Barca in the Champions League, Pinto is expected to start in the Copa del Rey final next month, meaning Valdes could be in inspired form when he pulls on the No.1 shirt for possibly the last time against his old foes.

The match is set-up to be one of the best Clasico contests for some time with the focus firmly on the pitch and not what’s going on in the press room. Expect a few late tackles and expect a few tasty words being exchanges between both sets of players, but most of all expect a Clasico packed full of skill, intensity and flavour.

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