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Barca, Real promises new storylines

FOX Soccer's Rob Stone sits down with ex-Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho.
FOX Soccer's Rob Stone sits down with ex-Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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EL CLASICO

Click here for up-to-the-minute updates regarding Sunday's titanic clash.

For more than a century, the world’s two biggest and best clubs, Barcelona and Real Madrid, have fought out a rivalry so vitriolic that when Barca star Luis Figo defected to Real in 2000, Barca fans threw a pig’s head at him upon his return to the Camp Nou.

Every two or three years for the last decade or so, the balance of power has tipped between these sworn enemies. Dating back to 2004, Barca won Spain’s La Liga twice; then Real won it twice; then Barca won it thrice; only for Real to tear it back again last year.

Historically, the champions have been even stronger in their defending year. This, in other words, should be Real Madrid’s time.

But following the 2011-12 season, the Spanish press spoke of a “changing of the cycle.” Barcelona’s dynastic run of three league titles, two Champions League victories, two Club World Cups, a Copa del Rey and five other bits of silverware from the 2008-09 season through 2010-11 was supposedly well and truly over. Head coach and mastermind Josep Guardiola was burned out – and he left. Playmaker Xavi Hernandez and central defender Carles Puyol were getting on in age and Jose Mourinho’s deeper, more expensive and more athletic Real only ever seemed to be getting stronger.

Last year, Real won the league without convincing anybody that it was better than Barcelona, splitting their regular season series with each team winning its away game. But Real seemed to make a breakthrough during the season-opening Spanish Supercopa in August, outplaying a sloppy Barca and taking the series on away goals. Since then, Barca’s air of invincibility has dissipated. They simply haven’t looked as fluid or as dominant under Guardiola’s promoted assistant Tito Vilanova. Wins aren’t as straightforward, the pace no longer breakneck, Lionel Messi and his band of tiny dribblers not quite so untouchable.

Yet here we are, six rounds into the what is supposed to be Real’s season and Sunday’s first installment of El Clasico, staged in Barcelona, is already a must-win for the royal whites, courtesy of two early-season losses to Getafe and Sevilla and a tie with Valencia. Barca may not have looked convincing, but it has nevertheless won all six of its games, overcoming a 2-0 deficit to Sevilla with two last-gasp goals last Saturday. That means if Real loses, it will be 11 points behind Barca and fairly well out of the race – in October! – a totally intolerable prospect for the Madridistas.

Rather than seize power, Real has floundered, bickering internally, dealing with distractions – like their star player publicly proclaiming his unhappiness – and slumping on the field. Central defender-cum-club-wielding-troglodyte Sergio Ramos has been at odds with his Portuguese manager Mourinho, who blamed him for a goal last January and, more recently, put his team on blast in the press for losing to Sevilla. The indispensable central defender was summarily benched for a Champions League against Manchester City, from which Real only eked out a win on a pair of very late goals.

And then, Cristiano Ronaldo rocked the world by saying that he was “sad.”

Some say the subtext of their argument is a power struggle between the team’s Spaniards and Portuguese. But whatever the reason, Real’s unimpressive form, exemplified by the underwhelming performances of several key cogs like Mesut Ozil, is ill timed.

The injury bug has struck Barca’s back line anew. Gerard Pique is out with a knee injury while Carles Puyol, just back from a prior knock, dislocated his elbow against Benfica on Tuesday. That leaves Vilanova to pick from the gaffe-prone threesome of Alex Song, who was at fault for both goals against Sevilla, Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets – all three of whom are natural central midfielders and not entirely comfortable in the back.

CLASSIC FIGURES

Can't remember the prominent players from El Clasico's history? Take a trip down memory lane.

If it hopes to save face against the one team it cannot bear to lose to but has nevertheless been bested by six times over the last two years, if it wants to pull its domestic campaign back from the brink, Real will need to capitalize on this deficiency.

Dating back to the Francisco Franco regime, the Clasico – won 88 times by Real and 87 times by Barca in 221 official games going back to 1902 (this will be the 252nd meeting all-time)– has served as a proxy for the political struggle between Spain as a whole, represented by its capital city Madrid, and secessionist Catalonia, symbolized by Barca. Lately, as Real struggles to re-establish its power on the field, the decades-old cry for Catalonia’s independence off it has regained momentum.

A few weeks ago, as many as 1.5 million people marched through the streets of Barcelona, chanting for their political freedom. Ahead of Sunday’s game, the Barca fans will form a mosaic of the Catalan flag. And then a soccer game that shall mean everything will take place.

FOX Soccer’s Dermot Corrigan contributed to this report from Madrid.

Amy Lawrence is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who has been writing about the game since USA `94, covering the Premier League, Champions League, European leagues and international soccer.

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