The thought of the best two teams in Spain if not the world locking horns is certainly something to savour. But if it happens 4 times in 18 days is it a footballing spectacular or does the familiarity breed boredom?
It’s not the first time it’s happened, though it has been 95 years, back in 1916 the two battled it out 4 times in 20 days with Barcelona winning twice, Real once and one draw. All of those ties were in the Copa del Rey with the 3rd game in the series (1st replay) finishing 6-6! We can only dream! A little more recently back in late November the El Clásico was expected to be a closely run tie, although Barça had just started clicking into gear, Real were progressing nicely as well. José Mourinho was the man with all the answers, after all it was his Inter side that had defeated the Catalans on route to winning the Champions League at the Bernabéu. Expectation was that a similar tactic would be employed, “the park the bus” approach whilst wouldn’t be popular to with the Madrilenos, was seen as José’s tried and tested formula. The Portuguese manager instead went for a high line, what followed was one of the greatest team performances seen in football as Barcelona demolished their rivals 5-0.
The last time Real Madrid beat Barcelona the very next day it was announced “Pep” Josep Guardiola i Sala would be L’equip blaugrana’s new manager, the side from the Nou Camp have not looked back since with a total aggregate score over the five games being a massive 16-2. Between the two managers the first of the games will be there forth encounter, Pep leads this 2-1 but ultimately José has defeated him over the course of a two-legged tie. The smart money would suggest Barça for the league and cup games and Real for the European ones but I’ve never been too good at predictions and anything can happen in football nevermind derbies.
The problem most English-speaking writers of the Spanish game have with the series of matches is that it doesn’t do anything to discourage the critics. Those that say it’s a two team league in La Liga, the rest aren’t up to standard. However what is probably coming to be realised is that the rest of Europe aren’t up to their standard either. Within Spain the press don’t do anything to discourage that the leagues all about Barcelona and Real Madrid. Writers like myself want people to realise there’s more to Spanish football than the “big two”. There’s fantastic footballing sides, clubs and players that don’t get the full credit they deserve from the media worldwide. Valencia were unlucky to have not progressed to the Champions League Quarter finals and Villarreal are close to a Europa League Semi final. But due to the television deal within the league it’s fair to say there is an imbalance, some writers avoid watching the top two altogether as some games are such a formality. All leagues have a disparity between the top and bottom though, it’s just some are more obvious than others and even this will change from time to time.
When English sides have played each other frequently, the media have embraced it. The regular battles of Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United in various scenarios in the knockout stages of Europe’s premier competition in recent history have been seen as a sign of how strong the Premier League is. Phrases such as the “Battle of Britain” are rolled out, the idea that it’s too much is not even contemplated. Maybe however its the space between the games that makes the difference. When Chelsea played Liverpool five times in one season the League Cup Final was separated by two months before the first of the European semi-finals commenced.
A series of matches like these should be celebrated. When things occur so often they begin to be taken for granted but we should all remember that this isn’t the norm. In 10 years time events such as these will be looked back upon, all leagues and countries have their cycles. These games will be part of the legend of when Spain dominated football both internationally or through one of the best two teams. The Spanish media will go into overdrive over the games, but why not, they are maybe the biggest series of games that two club sides have ever faced. Everyone of these games are not to be missed, whilst the league is pretty much done and dusted, the game takes significance as it’s the first showing of either sides hand and whoever draws first blood will strike a massive psychological blow. For the casual observer if they only wish to watch one of these games then the Copa del Rey final is the match, a one-off game on a neutral ground with only that result of consequence. Then the biggest and most expensive game of chess seen, a two-legged semi final to decide who will be at Wembley for the European Cup Final 2011.
Both managers preferred first choice elevens have become fairly obvious throughout the season. But injuries and suspensions will mean that these aren’t on show though, those looking for tactics previews can be rest assured that a couple of surprises will be sprung at least by Mourinho if not from Guardiola. As each game unfolds personal duels will develop and hostility will increase. Whilst Jose has been fairly quiet up to now, expect the mind games to increase as the semi finals become nearer. Phil Ball, the author of Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football, calls the El Clásico “a re-enactment of the Spanish Civil War” such is the passion and fight generated from this game. When Eidur Gudjohnsen spoke recently to Sky’s flagship magazine of the League programme on the derby he said “One of the players wrote on the wall, ‘Don’t worry boys there’s only 100 million people watching this”. That was about the intensity of one game but no one was on hand to talk about Four of them.