A new era of Clasicos will begin on Saturday with the first meeting of the season between two great rivals and two of the world’s outstanding teams, Barcelona and Real Madrid. For three years the leading roles have been essentially played by the same actors of contrasting footballing ideologies; on the pitch there has been the quest for ever more absurd excellence between the natural brilliance of Lionel Messi and the supreme athletic efficiency of Cristiano Ronaldo, while on the sidelines Pep Guardiola, followed by a season by former deputy Tito Vilanova, and Jose Mourinho waged their own battle.
At the Camp Nou this weekend there will be new faces and a new feel to the rivalry.
Indeed, in terms of the men on the bench, the duel should have less of the unsavory undertones that have been present in recent seasons. That feeling was undeniably built up in part due to the coaches being entrenched in the contrasting philosophies of their clubs. Guardiola and Vilanova were, of course, two men with rich histories at Barcelona, and who fully adhered to the idea of “mes que un club.” In contrast, while Mourinho had no previous links with Madrid (indeed, he was a former Barcelona coach), his knack for short-term success and focus on winning above all else was in perfect harmony with modern-day Madrid. An eye gouge by Mourinho on Vilanova and Guardiola’s uncharacteristic rant in response to barbs from Mourinho summed up the era.
This time around, things promise to be much more sedate, at least as much as they can be in the midst of a rivalry that has extended far beyond the pitch for the best part of a century. Both Gerardo Martino and Carlo Ancelotti have been brought from the outside. Indeed, Martino believes he has been targeted for unfair criticism for a slight alteration in Barcelona’s style purely because he is not either one of the Catalonians or Dutch to have played a part in the club’s rich legacy. Ancelotti, meanwhile, has also faced barbs from the Madrid press about his supposed catenaccio tendencies.
Of course, in Martino’s case, he is far from a radical departure in terms of playing philosophy. His Newell’s Old Boys side played with a possession-based, high-pressing style that became such a trademark of Barcelona under Guardiola and Vilanova and was introduced by Dutch coaching legend Rinus Michels in the 1970s. The Argentinian, though, has allowed the team, as Gerard Pique put it, to no longer be slaves to tiki-taka.
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Ancelotti, like Madrid, lacks such a defined tactical philosophy. The Italian has generally favored narrow formations and often seems more comfortable being reactive rather than proactive. At Paris Saint-Germain, the success they had under his reign was largely based on the incredible talent of their individuals while the team often looked disjointed.
Thus far, he is still looking to blend a cohesive unit in Madrid; and that, despite largely not yet being faced with the dilemma of how to incorporate Gareth Bale into the side. It is the thus far injury-plagued Welshman and the other big summer signing Neymar who represent the other key new ingredients to the Clasico formula, joining messes Ronaldo and Messi, respectively, to turn the match into a four-star cluster.
So far it has been the Brazilian who has made the bigger impact. The observation that Madrid, with the wide talents of Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel di Maria didn’t need to spend a (perhaps) record fee on another certainly has some merit. However, the claim that the same is true of Barcelona and Neymar has less validity. As much as Barcelona were undone by their defensive issues last season, they also became far too reliant on Messi to provide the creative spark to break down packed defenses.
Neymar can certainly provide that individual brilliance, although he has yet to show his full range of talents. What he has done is to prove doubters wrong who said he would fail to fit in with Barcelona’s team ethic. In contrast, the former Santos man has been a selfless operator wide on the left, playing deference to Messi at almost every opportunity both on and off the pitch.
Of course Barcelona’s defensive deficiencies remain. They were in full evidence against Milan on Tuesday, while their inability to deal with set-pieces has been comical at times. It is hard to envisage Madrid, regardless of whether Bale is firing, not having at least one golden opportunity to score when the sides meet at the weekend. Madrid’s tactics will be intriguing, particularly in the context of Barcelona’s more direct approach this season. Ancelotti could well elect to sit deep and try and frustrate as he did against Barcelona with PSG. It could also, though, be the match when Martino’s willingness to allow the opposition have possession and hit them on the break receives its coming-out party.
Ultimately, Barcelona appear the more cohesive unit right now and should get a narrow win as the Clasicos enter fresh territory.
Prediction: Barcelona 2-1 Real Madrid
Betting Odds: Barcelona are 5/6 favorites to get a victory, with William Hill. A draw is priced at 14/5, with a Real Madrid win on offer at 3/1.