FOX Soccer Exclusive
History at forefront of Barca-Real
Both Barcelona and Real Madrid go into El Clasico (live, Saturday, 12 PM ET) at the Camp Nou with new coaches, and new superstar signings. But as always in La Liga’s biggest game, the past looms large.
For Blancos boss Carlo Ancelotti the legacy of his predecessor Jose Mourinho remains, but in a perhaps surprisingly positive way. Mourinho’s final season at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu ended in disarray, but his Madrid had gained a clear upper hand in direct meetings with its Catalan rivals -- winning two and drawing one of its last five visits to the Camp Nou.
Barcelona had run out of answers against the power, pace and athleticism of Cristiano Ronaldo -- he has scored in each of his last six Camp Nou visits -- and his colleagues. On their most recent visit, the 3-1 Copa del Rey win in February, Madrid was completely dominant, with Barca’s players and fans stunned and submissive.
Despite the summer's changes at both clubs, players on each side still remember that game. Even Ancelotti -- in a joking way -- brought it up on Thursday.
“When Mourinho arrived he had problems, but since then Madrid has played fantastically well there,” he said on Spanish radio. “I will try and play like the Copa semifinal last year, the 3-1, and not change anything.”
In reality, the Italian continues to tinker with his side, with mixed results. Wednesday’s Champions League clash with Juventus summed up his time so far. Madrid impressed only in patches, and needed some poor refereeing and two more Cristiano Ronaldo goals to win 2-1.
Ronaldo has an astounding 13 goals in his last eight games for Madrid. This hot streak is well-timed, as many of his teammates are struggling. Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema worked hard for the team against Juventus, but missed another open goal. The midfield, which so dominated in recent Clasicos, has been especially weak lately -- with Xabi Alonso still injured, and Mesut Ozil now impressing at Arsenal.
And then there’s Gareth Bale. The $130 million signing was again a substitute against Juventus, but returned horrible stats of 27 minutes played, four passes attempted and zero passes completed. Ancelotti has again defended his player -- as he has to -- but must surely be wary of throwing a not fully fit Bale into a big game as Saturday’s.
Even the player himself seems to doubt he is ready. “I am not too sure,” Bale said this week. “I have had a few minutes this week and I have had a good week's training as well. So I think I am fit enough.”
Such uncertainty contrasts with the confident start by Barca's big-money summer signing. Brazilian $85 million attacker Neymar talked this week about watching his fellow countryman Ronaldinho score twice against Madrid in a 3-0 win in 2005, and said he was eager to do something similar himself.
“The Clasico is the most important game for any player,” Neymar said. “It’s the match every player wants to play in. This will be my first - and I hope to have a great debut, preferably with a victory.”
Neymar was quiet in Barca’s Champions League group 1-1 draw at Milan midweek, when it seemed he and his teammates were already thinking of Madrid. The real win from the game for Barca was Lionel Messi scoring while completing 90 minutes after recent persistent injury problems.
That Milan result was Barcelona’s second consecutive draw, after they had opened the season with ten straight wins under new boss Martino. Even with that record the Argentine has yet to fully win over Catalan pundits and fans who still yearn for the stylish soccer played a few years back under Pep Guardiola. Martino is always keen to stress his respect for past achievements, but has stuck to his plan to make his team play a more direct style, while rotating stars including Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta.
Whether to drop either Xavi or Iniesta to bring in Cesc Fabregas had been Martino’s biggest selection poser for Saturday, until Gerard Pique's thigh strain emerged. The defender's injury could open the door for club captain Carles Puyol, now 35, despite him returning just last weekend after seven months out with a serious knee injury.
Puyol said this week he too was aware Madrid had worked out how to beat the old tiki-taka Barca.
“Madrid will come here with confidence,” Puyol said. “We must keep an eye out for their counter-attacks, they know us perfectly.”
Martino might argue that such predictability was exactly the reason for his tactical tweaks. Ancelotti is also installing a new style of play, trying to move things forward after Mourinho. The season's first Clasico should tell us which of the new coaches is heading in the right direction.
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