This Sunday will see the latest instalment in club football’s greatest rivalry, as Real Madrid faces Barcelona at the Camp Nou. ‘El Clasico’ is as big an annual occasion as exists anywhere in sport, watched by hundreds of millions and contested by some of the sport’s greatest names. Over the years, this fixture has been graced by Alfredo Di Stefano, Lazlo Kubala, Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Raul, Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham and Ronaldinho. Some have even played for both sides: Michael Laudrup, Ronaldo, Bernd Schuster, and most controversially, Luis Figo.
However, this will be a different El Clasico, as for the first time since 2005, neither Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo will be playing. Messi announced himself on the world stage in this fixture back in November 2005. Since then, Messi has scored 26 goals in 38 games against Real Madrid, but will miss this clash after fracturing his arm in a 4-2 win over Sevilla last Sunday.
Real Madrid lost Cristiano Ronaldo permanently when he left for Juventus this summer. Ronaldo made his Real Madrid debut after his world record transfer from Manchester United in 2009 and managed 18 goals in 30 Clasico appearances. The two players have equally split the last 10 Ballon d’Or prizes, while their clubs have won 13 of the last 14 La Liga titles and the last 5 Champions League crowns.
A tougher La Liga
This season has seen both Barcelona and Real Madrid both endure relative struggles in La Liga with Spain poised for a more open title race. Going into the weekend fixtures, Barcelona leads La Liga by one point from local rivals Espanyol and Alaves, with both Sevilla and Atletico Madrid a point further back. Real Madrid sit seventh, four points behind Barcelona having already suffered three La Liga defeats.
The slump has seen Real Madrid president Florentino Perez sound out former Chelsea and Juventus manager Antonio Conte as a potential replacement for the beleaguered Julen Lopetegui. Perez controversially appointed Spain’s national team coach Lopetegui this summer to replace former coach Zinedine Zidane, just days before Spain’s World Cup opener. That saw the national side jettison Lopetegui; scuppering their World Cup chances.
The departures of Zidane and Ronaldo have seen Real struggle for goals – scoring just 13 in 9 La Liga games. Fans remain divided on Lopetegui’s culpability after a quiet transfer window that saw no big signing to replace Ronaldo; Perez instead made goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois his biggest summer purchase. Perez gambled on Gareth Bale alongside Isco and Karim Benzema providing enough firepower to keep Real going, but it has backfired spectacularly. With hefty stadium infrastructure costs in the works, Perez failed to make a serious bid for Eden Hazard while long-term targets Neymar and Kylian Mbappe remain out of reach. The latest rumors place Real Madrid in the market for England striker Raheem Sterling.
There is an unfamiliar look to Barcelona as well, with Brazilian winger Malcom and veteran Chile midfielder Arturo Vidal as their most significant summer signings. Club legend Andres Iniesta departed for Japan, while the loaning of Paco Alcacer to Borussia Dortmund has raised eyebrows with the striker scoring for fun in the Bundesliga.
El Clásico always delivers
We head into El Clasico without Messi, Ronaldo, Iniesta and Zidane, but this fixture is truly special with its political overtones dating back to the Civil War and catalog of classic matches. While nobody expects a pig’s head to be thrown on the pitch as it was when Figo returned to the Camp Nou in the white strip of Madrid, this is a bitter, intense rivalry with moments of genius lighting up the pitch. Often in the recent past it’s been Messi or Ronaldo providing the magic, but with so many superstar players on the pitch, we’re likely to see more.
With Messi absent, Suarez will be the focal point of Barcelona’s attack and his connection with old Liverpool teammate Coutinho could prove vital for Barca. The fiery striker’s confrontation with Real Madrid skipper Sergio Ramos should see sparks fly, but Suarez hasn’t yet found his best form, netting just four times this season. Lopetegui meanwhile mustn’t depart Barcelona on Sunday with another defeat. Real Madrid needs to rediscover their fluency, and that means Ballon d’Or front runner Modric needs a big game after a quiet start to the season.
Prediction: Barcelona 3-1 Real Madrid
Photo Credit: Marca, Sportskeeda