There’s been a lot spoken and written already about Saturday’s ‘El Clásico’ between Real Madrid and Barcelona at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. Pretty much everyone accepts that Madrid are playing better now than at any stage during recent seasons. José Mourinho’s side come into the game with 15 wins in a row, having mixed clinical attacking displays such as the 4-0 victory at Málaga in October with finding a way to win tricky away games like the 3-2 victory at Valencia last month. Mourinho has been quietly tweaking his side, moving Sergio Ramos to centre-half and successfully keeping his many talented attackers all happy and firing.
Meanwhile, Barca have been stumbling, at least relatively speaking, and especially away from the Camp Nou. While they have generally swatted away any visitors at home, they’ve only won twice in six away league games so far, and lost to struggling Getafe on their last visit to the Spanish capital. Guardiola’s experiments with different team shapes and personnel have disrupted his side’s rhythm and maybe even hit their confidence. Key members of last season’s first XI (or ‘Once de Oro’), particularly David Villa and Gerard Piqué, have been in and out of the team and are struggling for form.
So the talk in Spain, and particularly in Madrid, is that Barca have dropped well behind Madrid. A look at the Primera División table - where Madrid sit three points clear, with a game in hand - backs this up. Such a gap is potentially decisive in a league like Spain’s where the big guns so rarely drop points. That this year, for a change, the first Clásico is at the Bernabéu, is also seen as factor in Madrid’s favour. The feeling is that the tide has turned, Madrid are now in the ascendant and Mourinho is on course to mastermind victory on Saturday, leading to Madrid’s first title win in four seasons and Real’s longed-for décima - a tenth European Cup / Champions League trophy. Bookies favour a Madrid win in Saturday’s game too.
That all makes a certain amount of sense, but is still perhaps a pretty short-sighted view, especially if you look back at the clashes between the clubs in recent years. During Guardiola’s three and a bit seasons in charge, Barca have met Madrid 11 times and only lost once (last year’s Copa del Rey final in extra-time). He has three wins and two draws in five meetings at the Bernabéu. And perhaps surprisingly, even before Mourinho arrived in Spain, Madrid have often gone into these games favoured to win or at least on equal enough terms.
In May 2009 Barca travelled to the Bernabéu to take on a Juande Ramos side which were unbeaten in 18 league games and chasing hard as the league reached its conclusion. Higuaín headed Madrid in front, but Lionel Messi set up Thierry Henry for the equaliser and then scored twice himself as the Catalans eventually strolled to a 6-2 win. When the teams met in Madrid the following season, it was April and they were level on points at the top. Manuel Pellegrini’s Madrid came into what was again effectively a title deciding game with 12 consecutive La Liga wins and 15 consecutive domestic home wins, but Messi put Barcelona ahead and they won 2-0.
Around this time last year Madrid went to the Camp Nou unbeaten all season, with seven wins in their last seven league games, trusted themselves to attack Barcelona and were humiliated 0-5. Messi didn’t score but he laid on both David Villa’s killer goals. Mourinho’s men showed character to recover and still be well in the race for both La Liga and the Champions League by mid-April, when the teams met again in the (in)famous four games in eighteen days.
Madrid’s rough-house tactics in those games unsettled Barcelona, but Guardiola’s side still came through when it mattered most. Messi traded penalties with Cristiano Ronaldo in a 1-1 league draw in Madrid which all but secured the title for the Catalans, and then scored both goals in the Champions League semi-final first leg at the Bernabéu, pretty much finishing that tie too.
Mourinho made sure Madrid were better prepared for August’s pre-season Supercopa games, and his team played very well, cleverly attacking Barca’s weak-points and scoring some superb team goals. But every time Madrid went ahead Barcelona came back at them, most thrillingly / frustratingly when Karim Benzema tied things up with just eight minutes left in the second leg, only for Messi to still find time to start and finish the move which won the trophy for Barcelona. It must have been difficult for Madrid’s players and coaches to take, and perhaps explains but doesn’t excuse Mourinho’s decision to poke Tito Vilanova in the eye.
Which brings us to this weekend. There’s been a lot of words written in the last few days about different tactical approaches - will Madrid go with a defensive ‘trivote’ in midfield, will Guardiola risk a three man defence - and I’ve even written a lot of them myself. Possibly though, what with football being a simple game and all, the game will be decided by the best players making the difference when their team needs them most. And Messi has 13 goals in 15 career games against Madrid, many of them killer strikes at key moments.
So here’s a prediction. No matter how good Madrid’s form is coming into a Clásico, and whoever is in charge at Real, Barca have Messi so Barca win.
Dermot Corrigan is an Irish freelance writer living in Madrid and writing about football at Sport 360, Fox Soccer, When Saturday Comes and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.