Imagine the Premier League is Loki from, The Avengers. La Liga is Tony Stark, and they’re having *that* famous conversation.
PL: “I have many top quality clubs leading to an Army of highly competitive, high profile matches”
LL: “We have a Clasico”
Yup. El Clasico is the Hulk (not to be confused with the enormous monster that plays for Zenit) of football matches. Its gigantic. You can hear it coming from a distance, and it leaves a trail of destruction and euphoria in equal measure, in its wake. Its a match that transcends primary loyalties in Spain. Everyone is expected to take sides in this one. The one guy who doesn’t, is almost always accused of having done exactly that. In that respect, the referee had a decent game last night. Not too many poor decisions.
Top Two in the World, Slugging it out
In the years since that devastating 5-0 loss at the hands of Barcelona in the Camp Nou, Madrid have managed to close the gap considerably on their most bitter rivals. With a team already bursting at the seams with talent, Jose Mourinho has moulded them into a finely tuned machined, specifically calibrated to beat the Catalans. It seems to have become something of an obsession for him. Of course on the other side of the great divide, the burning desire to vanquish their fiercest rivals from the capital is equally strong. The Copa del Rey is admittedly low on the priority list for a club competing in two other more significant competitions. But when it comes to Los Blancos, nothing less than a win is acceptable. A loss in the Copa is not the end of the world. A loss, and subsequent elimination at the hands of Real Madrid is unthinkable. The fact that this is Real Madrid, makes the Copa del Rey Final the single most important goal. At least for now.
This sort of competition has driven both these teams to such extraordinary levels of excellence that they’re the only ones who can consistently compete with each other now. It is said that La Liga is a two-horse race (although this year, its different) but these two teams are at such an exalted state of brilliance, that they’d probably finish as the top two in every other league. Yes, even *that* one. No other team has to score nigh on 100 points to win a league title. That’s what the Championship winning sides in Spain for the last two seasons have done. A win is routine. A draw is a loss. A loss, is cataclysmic. The standards that they have been setting can only be matched by them. This is mirrored in the most talked about, almost tennis-like individual rivalry between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. One scores a hat-trick, the other scores 4. The stats are absurd. The skill, unmatched.
This is why when the two behemoths meet, it is an epic battle. Both teams are accustomed to opponents sitting back, trying to play safe. There’s an occasional brave but ultimately futile attempt at taking them on. But in El Clasico, both teams genuinely believe that they can win the game. The tactics vary and little intricate details are tweaked in every game, but the broader strategy remains the same. Both teams have a go at each other, at full speed. 100% committed in every challenge, and every chance. The fact that these are some of the best footballers on the planet giving it their all, is what has made their recent clashes so incredibly exciting.
The Perfect Example
The game last night was strange for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the absence of any significant contribution from the world’s two best players. Secondly, there was no pre-match storm-in-a-tea-cup kind of press conference where Jose Mourinho complained about the referee, the schedule of play, the weather or that he was served cold tea earlier in the day. The build up was relatively calm, but the game itself lived up to the hype I just created above. It was unusually open, and there were chances for both teams. It ended 1-1, but it could so easily have been 7-7.
Barcelona lacked the control that they have become known for as Madrid pressed them high up the pitch and stayed compact defensively. The loss of Ramos and Pepe was more than made up for by 19 year old Raphael Varane. I doubt either of the two veterans would have put in a better performance than the Frenchman. He was a colossal presence in defense, and somewhat fittingly also scored the goal that keeps the tie evenly balanced. Madrid created most of their chances by pressuring Barcelona and forcing them into errors rather than swift counters when an opposition attack broke down. The Barcelona defense, Gerard Pique in particular, did a fair job of averting the trademark three or four pass move ending in a goal for Real.
The second half saw Barcelona exert more control on the ball and they got a somewhat fortunate goal after which they started creating more opportunities by taking advantage of the space left by Madrid committing more players to attack. Pedro somehow missed a great chance when he forgot to shoot as he broke away from the defense, and when he did, it was wide from 5 yards out. Messi had one of his quietest games yet and Fabregas, despite scoring the goal, seemed to station himself too high to help with ball retention sometimes.
Madrid had problems of their own, with Ronaldo and Benzema both missing some great opportunities to score. Xabi Alonso managed to go 89 minutes without getting a booking, and Carvalho could have been sent off for a second yellow had the referee spotted his great piece of cricket fielding.
Overall both teams will be both happy and disappointed. The home team can take heart in the performance but the away goal could prove vital and Mourinho will not be excessively pleased with the score draw. Barcelona will be more than happy with the result. They start the second leg, winning, with the score at 0-0. The performance though, lacked a bit of dynamism and focus. Possibly because it was a Cup game or for whatever other reason, they lacked a crispness in the passing.
Both teams will claim to be satisfied with the result. Both teams will know they could have done much better. The second leg, will be excruciatingly close. This should be fun. There’s a maximum of four more of these epic encounters possible this season and I say there’s no such thing as ‘too many Clasicos’. Bring. It. On!