The grand arena where their home games are played serves as an appropriate monument to their ubiquity. The club’s regal emblem is ostentatiously display at every possible opportunity. The trophy room is less a room and more a sizeable museum, brimming with accolades. Then there’s the pitch. Presided over by a stern looking madrileño guard, it is, naturally, off limits. Except, of course, to the fortunate few. Is this, they wonder, where the Catalan cavalry will falter decisively?
In truth, with the Clásico looming, it is conceivable that Guardiola will once again outwit his Portuguese contemporary Jose Mourinho and thus preserve Barcelona’s dominance in this fixture. However, he will have to hastily remedy the club’s new found vulnerability and do so in the face of a revitalised Real. The dynamic of the fixture has altered and the prelude to the fixture has been somewhat peculiar.
Well, ’tis the the week before El Clásico and all through Madrid, not a creature is stirring not even a mouse. Or a Mou for that matter. Yes, it seems the special one, so often defined by his knee-jerk hostility in the overture to such encounters has been curiously reserved of late. This could of course change but perhaps the very conceivable possibility of a 9 point lead over Barca is enough to subdue even the audacity of the exuberant Portuguese.
More conspicuous even than the absence of Mourinho’s war of words is the relentless proficiency with which Real Madrid have been triumphing lately. Following the only two misfires of their season (a drab 0-0 draw away to Racing and an away 1-0 loss to Levante) Madrid have been on a 10 game winning streak in the league, accumulating some 49 goals in the process, the highest total in La Liga.
Furthermore, Ronaldo’s scoring acumen has endured impressively, yielding 17 league goals already and 20 overall. It appears that under the guidance of Mourinho, Ronaldo, often scrutinised for his anonymity in pivotal fixtures, has started to exhibit a maturity once regarded as eternally elusive to him.
Yet, perhaps a certain apprehension would be warranted. After all, Los Blancos haven’t won a league encounter against Los Azulgranas since since May of 2008 when Bernd Schuster’s Real Madrid won 4-1 at the Bernabéu. Moreover, there lingers the spectre of last season’s humiliating 5-0 loss at the Camp Nou, a stunning exhibition of their inferiority.
To that end, certain precautions have been exercised. Casillas, Ronaldo and Diarra did not travel to Amsterdam last night for the team’s 3-0 victory over Ajax. Nor did Segio Ramos, thus ensuring he is fit to deputise for the injured Carvalho.
Meanwhile, Kaká has asserted his desire to participate in the game but with Madrid flourishing at present it’s difficult to envisage a tactical switch to accommodate the Brazilian. Seasoned midfielder Xabi Alonso recently stated that ‘we are playing fantastically and we don’t want it to stop’. And who would dare try stop them? Well, there remains one candidate but time will tell if they are up to the task.
Indeed, Barcelona have proven a perplexing case this season. The Catalans now seem afflicted by an uncharacteristic inconsistency as evidenced by the handful of underwhelming performances that have blemished their status of invincibility. They have already drawn some four games this season, including three 2-2 draws away from home. Then there was the recent 1-0 loss away to Real’s neighbour, Getafe, another indication that they are no longer impervious to the demon of form. In fact, over the course of the season, Barcelona have failed to string together more than 3 consecutive league victories.
Such a predicament may be attributed to the waning away form of Lionel Messi. Generally speaking, the talismanic Argentine has been as devastating as ever, accruing some 17 league goals already this season. However, he has netted just one away league goal this campaign and, given that Barca have dropped 9 points away from the Camp Nou, logic dictates they have been inhibited by the away goalshyness of their number 10. Yet, perhaps this should prompt less an assessment of Messi’s often impeccable form and more a scrutiny of his team’s dependency on his scoring pedigree.
That said, Messi’s personal record against the Castillians is a remarkable endorsement of his undeniable talent. The 24 year old has amassed an extraordinary 13 goals against Real Madrid, rendering him the 6th all time highest scorer in the derby.
Meanwhile, Pep Guardiola will, as always, be displaying his predilection for diplomacy, theatrically contrasting the seemingly endless belligerence of Mourinho. The Catalan recently affirmed that ‘against a rival as strong as Madrid a win can strengthen you but there is still a long way to go in the league’ but also remarked that he expects the players to ‘show off all their talent and not to be afraid of anything’.
Such a sentiment was subsequently echoed by Cesc Fabregas who stated that his side would approach the fixture ‘without fear’. In truth, despite their recently erratic form, they are the same Barcelona side with the same personnel and the same capacity to dictate any match. They have won 3 La Liga titles and 2 Champions Leagues in the past 3 years and their squad continues to read like a Sheikh Mansour shopping list. In that respect, they are capable of disrupting the prosperity of their Madrid based counterparts, so long as Guardiola can rediscover that same formula of tireless tact and fearless flair that produced 5 goals in Barcelona a year ago.
Saturday’s fixture may not be coated with the acrimony and disparaging remarks in which last season’s quintet of Clásicos was submerged but perhaps that can be attributed to the somewhat novel role reversal of this winter’s encounter. It is Barca who may approach the fixture with a degree of trepidation as there looms the prospect of falling 9 points adrift of their capital contemporaries.
Yet, Mou’s men, settled on the summit, are too in unfamiliar terrain so a hiccup isn’t beyond plausibility. Although, this should be the ideal environment to instil them with confidence. Provided of course that a certain ever stern Spanish guard permits their gracing the pitch.