Goal.com's Cyrus C. Malek analyses why some new faces will make Saturday's El Clasico a profoundly different affair from December's face-off.
This is what separates La Liga football from the rest of the world’s leagues. With the history, culture, and political implications of El Clasico also comes, arguably, the greatest match in football — one that showcases all the qualities that make this The Beautiful Game. As La Liga lovers, we are treated to El Clasico twice per year and never does it fail to be a match of unparalleled drama and emotion. December’s Clasico was, to say the least, an intense affair — a high-pressure match that saw Real Madrid defend for what seemed like the entire 90 minutes.
Los Blancos did have a chance or two. If Royston Drenthe had forgotten he was (at the time) only 21 years old and had been able to chip Victor Valdes on one of Madrid’s only clear chances of the match, the end result may just have turned out a bit differently.
Casillas made superb save after superb save to keep out the relentlessly incisive Barca attack — his most spectacular coming from an Eto’o penalty that was unbelievably palmed away, but the Cameroonian presumed-Pichichi found the back of the net in the 83rd minute with a goal that made the Camp Nou volcano erupt in a frenzy of blue and red.
Sergio Ramos was employed in the left-back spot as the anti-Messi and took to his task with whatever physical authority he could impress upon La Pulga’s ankles, but in the end, the little Argentine sealed the match on a swift 93rd minute counterattack with a deft vaselina over Saint Iker. And Barca’s Liga lead was stretched to a seemingly insurmountable 12 points.
Five months later, that lead has been slowly chiselled down to four points, adding more fuel to the firestorm of drama that already surrounds El Clasico. On points, Madrid have actually outperformed Barcelona in the second half of this Primera Division campaign, leaving Los Blancos a Liga title to contend for in this match, and making it an even more nail-biting affair than December’s encounter at the Camp Nou.
But the most glaring difference between the December Clasico and Saturday’s mouth-watering match-up at the buzzing Santiago Bernabeu will be those who will play in this weekend’s clash.
The most notable faces that will have a chance to make their mark on El Clasico are the two Madrid newcomers. In the January transfer window, in an effort to fill the vacancies left from season-ending injuries to Ruud van Nistelrooy and Mahamadou Diarra, Madrid opened up their wallet to bring Lassana Diarra and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to the Bernabeu.
Juande Ramos certainly knew what he saw when he asked the Madrid management to put Lassana Diarra in a White shirt. No other player has been more influential in Madrid’s competitiveness and defensive discipline than Lass. Billed as the successor to Claude Makelele, Lass has legitimised the comparisons by drawing rounds of applause from the Madrid faithful for his tenacious hounding in midfield, powerful tackles, clairvoyant positioning in passing lanes, and purposeful long balls out of the defensive midfield. If there is one player who can stop Barcelona’s Xavi engine in midfield, it is Lass and his imposing style of defence.
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (or Hunletaar as renowned La Sexta commentator Andres Montes nonsensically, but affectionately calls him), as is typical for new players to the Spanish capital, had a few growing pains in his first month at the Bernabeu. Due to some very poor homework on the part of management in consulting UEFA rules, Madrid were forced to choose between Lass and Huntelaar for availability in the Champions League and as a result, the Dutch striker found himself out of luck in Europe’s most prestigious competition. Further, he seemed to have lost a step since scoring seemingly at will in the Dutch Eredivisie and had a terribly frustrating time putting the ball in the back of the net in his first Madrid appearances — failing at the principal task he was brought over to perform. But eight goals later, the Dutchman seems to have found his stride, and although he has not scored since tallying a brace against Almeria five matches ago, Klaas could bring enough of a physical presence in the air to give the Barca back line something to worry about.
Another crucial addition to the Madrid line-up and a huge absence in the December match is Arjen Robben. Dubbed the Glassman for his penchant for picking up injury, Robben looked to be certain to miss El Clasico due to an injury sustained after just 18 minutes on the pitch last week against Getafe. The winger was expected to be out until May, but according to a report by Spanish sports daily AS, the Glassman may just have shed his unfavourable nickname to come back in time for the most pivotal match of the season. Set to train on Thursday and Friday, Robben’s dribbling ability and mercurial pace could be exactly what Madrid need to relieve Barca’s attacking pressure and the Flying Dutchman will be an enormously positive addition to the Madrid side that faced Barcelona back in the winter — when Robben’s absence forced Real Madrid Castilla winger, Miguel Palanca into his first minutes with the first team.
The Madrid back line also features a few changes. This time out with a 10-match suspension rather than injury, Pepe leaves a void in Madrid’s central defence. But Christoph Metzelder, who has performed commendably under Juande Ramos, looks set to make his second Clasico appearance of the year. While the versatile Sergio Ramos was assigned to mark Messi on the left in the winter match-up, he should return to his natural right-back slot, this time to deal with Thierry Henry. Unlike the December Clasico, Gabriel Heinze is healthy for this Saturday’s match, but it seems unlikely that Juande Ramos will give the task of containing Messi to the aging left-back. Instead, Marcelo, who was out of favour with his coach five months ago, could be given the chance to serve in his more natural left-back position as the new “anti-Messi” — a possibility that will be far more likely if Robben does in fact make his return. Juande Ramos certainly likes the Brazilian’s pace on the Argentinean antagonist, but the manager would do well to instruct his young defender to be more disciplined with his marauding runs forward lest he be caught out of position and give the Barca number ‘10’ a clear path to goal.
Not to be outdone, Barcelona will also have some new faces set to appear at the Bernabeu.
Suffering a (likely season-ending) knee injury yesterday in Barca’s Champions League 0-0 draw with Chelsea, Rafa Marquez’s sure tackling will be missed in the Blaugrana back line. But Spanish international Gerard Pique is an excellent substitute and the central defender has been so phenomenally solid at the back, that Marquez’s injury should not be excessively painful to the team.
But surely Barcelona’s most important new face could be the player who tilts the scale in Barcelona’s favour and secures La Liga for them. Out with injury back in December, Andres Iniesta brings his darting play and technical panache to this Saturday’s Clasico and it is hard to say how Madrid will account for the little Spaniard, who deserves almost as much (if not the same) defensive attention as Messi. If Madrid fail to take the ball off of Iniesta’s boots, Casillas could find himself in for a longer and more stressful night than the December encounter.
The dwindling point differential already has given Saturday’s Clasico the recipe to be a true Classic. But the new faces that each side bring to the match since playing at the Camp Nou bolster the anticipation surrounding this match in a way December’s Clasico could not: both sides will feature their near-strongest line-ups and the show that is sure to ensue will have every fan, of both Barca and Blanco persuasions, on the edge of his or her seat. And to supporters of neither team, a true demonstration of Spanish football will show why we Primera proponents enjoy the very best football in the world. ¡Viva La Liga!
Cyrus C. Malek, Goal.com