March 28, 2016 2:39 PM – Kobi Theiler
El Clásico is this Saturday, and with both Real Madrid and Barcelona looking to take a set of points off their most fierce rival, fans on both sides are all but guaranteed an emotional game. This is a legendary matchup, a clash of titans in the sporting world, and perhaps the biggest macro and micro level rivalry in soccer: Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, Lionel Messi vs. Christiano Ronaldo. This is it. This, soccer freaks, is why we love the game. But, while Saturday may be defined by its extremely prevalent, and mostly well-mannered rivalry between two competing wonder strikers, it will not entirely be decided by it.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the key matchups that will be vital for finding victory at Camp Nou. Starting with the obvious, the battle between juggernauts Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo…
With rumors circulating around Messi’s potential Premier League transfer at the end of the season, this weekend’s El Clásico may mark the last of Messi and Ronaldo’s iconic La Liga battles, and in terms of how their legacies will be remembered, it may also be their most defining.
Messi became Barcelona’s all time leading scorer at the age of 24, he has shattered the record for most goals in a single season (73), and is the all time leading scorer in La Liga. He is one of the greatest goal scorers of all time; and so is Ronaldo.
In a remarkably efficient fashion, Ronaldo matches Messi’s ability to find the goal. In fact, Ronaldo finished ahead of his rival in the scoring charts for the second season in a row last year, notching 48 league goals in 35 appearances. Ronaldo has the best goal-scoring ratio in the history of the La Liga. At the end of last season, Ronaldo had wrapped up an impressive 225 league goals in 200 games since his arrival at Real Madrid.
Messi loses marks to Ronaldo mainly due to his physical limitations in areas such as heading, strength and power. Ronaldo is regarded as a more physical player than his technically gifted opponent, but Messi tops Ronaldo with his savant-like technical ability, on and off the ball.
To revisit a tired cliché, Lionel Messi is a team player, which could set Barcelona apart from Madrid. Messi works selflessly with teammates Neymar and Luis Suarez, as part of a trio of strikers that on any given day could use their crafty understanding of one another to rip apart even the best defenses in the world. If you need proof, just look at how they mercilessly counterattacked Arsenal during their Round of 16 CL matches. The clever prowess that Barcelona demonstrates is a testament to Messi’s understanding of team chemistry.
Ronaldo’s efficiency and physicality set him apart from Messi; but for now, his game is largely centered on and perhaps too limited to goal scoring. Whatever your stance, there is little question that for now, both are ahead of anybody else playing the game, and will surely go down as all time greats.
When it comes to this weekend though, it’s Barcelona and Real Madrid we are talking about, and they are certainly not one-man shows. In the midfield, lets examine the players who set up our notorious goal scorers…
It’s official, Zinedine Zidane has taken over as the new head coach for Madrid and perhaps the biggest objective that he has had for his team has been a tactical overhaul in the midfield. The current squad has new options off the bench, but for all their promise, players such as Mateo Kovacic and Carlos Casemiro are yet to reach the levels of Toni Kroos or Luka Modrić circa 2014/2015.
Real Madrid needs to create chances against Barcelona. So it is, perhaps the difference between the two squads will come down to the performance of Luka Modrić. The Croatian player has never been perceived a prolific scorer. His nine goals in 156 matches tell a story of a defending midfielder playing for a team brimming with offensive talent; but perhaps, that is just because he has not had a chance to showboat his finishing skills.
Madrid’s frustrating season seemed all but encapsulated by their inability to break free of a 1-1 draw at Granada earlier this month… until Modrić, with a single touch, prepped a lofted ball and struck an impossible shot that found the top left of Granada’s goal. After the game, a relieved Zidane told the press that Luka should shoot more. Modrić is adored by the Bernabeu faithful. Now, working with someone who believes in his ability as much as they do, he is presented with an opportunity to shine and perhaps tally a few more deciding goals.
Barcelona have not been without midfield struggles either. Injuries have plagued FCB’s ability to solidify a congruent line up, forcing Sergio Busquets to play a more advanced role than he is accustomed to, and leaving Mascherano to fill the gap he leaves behind in his usual holding position. It has taken time, but the season has progressed and so has Busquets, who is now thriving in his new role. Busquets has become one of Barcelona’s best players going forward, and a top assister. Busquets is maybe the best defensive midfielder in the world, and his transition into the Barca offense has asserted him as an essential part of the team.
An untimely muscle injury has lately seen Busquets relegated to the bench in the last few weeks. However, doubts of the midfielder’s return have been mitigated by his recent inclusion onto Luis Enrique’s list of starters this weekend. Barcelona’s hopes to hold possession moving forward, against a talented but unbalanced Real Madrid midfield, could hinge on the performance of a recovering Sergio Busquets.
Finally, we examine El Clásico’s respective defenses, the stoppers tasked with shutting down two of soccer’s most daunting offenses…
For Real Madrid, an aging Sergio Ramos and his speed are far from what they used to be, and it is uncertain that Pepe or Raphael Varane have the experience or skill needed to push the backline forward in the way that Ramos always has. His innate understanding of defensive tactics, and commanding leadership have always made Madrid solid in the back, but his physical dominance is giving way.
Perhaps this was made all too apparent in Spain’s 2014 World Cup disaster. Following an era of dominant defense led by Ramos and his FCB opponent this weekend, Gerard Pique, Spain suffered a 5-1 defeat at the hands of Holland. Sergio Ramos is aging, and he has been since that fateful day… but that does not diminish his role on Saturday. In what could become one of his few remaining Clásico matchups, Sergio Ramos will need to step up. He will need to dig deep and anchor his team for the Madristas, as he has before.
And so will an aging Gerard Pique. During Barcelona’s defeat at Celta back in September, Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique (returning from a four-match ban) gave away the ball 28 times between them…
Unfortunately for Barca, neither played up to expectations at Vigo and it was the first time their partnership had slipped to an extent that conceded 4 goals; fortunately for Barca, they have since lived up to being “més que un club,” and gone on to a 22 game unbeaten streak. With this in mind, Pique’s leadership should not go unnoticed, even in the midst of defensive struggles. Barcelona, who has faced scrutiny this season for these troubles, needs Pique to step onto the pitch as the same leader who has stepped up time and time again for club and country.
There is a parallel story about El Clásico’s “two other greatest footballers.” It is a story of defensive struggles, and a relationship between two of Spain’s noble leaders, fierce opponents for club and passionate teammates for country. Both are battling to keep their sides together, amidst the reality of aging in a grueling game. Perhaps they will one day remember each other as friends, but on Saturday they will step onto the field and into the greatest rivalry in sports, with growing tiredness in their legs and growing passion in their hearts… And that will make all the difference.