All crises are relative. At the stratospheric level occupied by the world’s two biggest soccer clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona, premature elimination from the Champions League, failing to retain the Spanish league title and the sting of missing out on the Copa del Rey, Spain’s domestic cup competition would constitute a five-alarm meltdown.
On Tuesday, Barca will host century-old mortal enemies Real in the second leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals. The first game in Madrid ended in a 1-1 draw meaning the teams have all to play for. The winner can use the game to boost their season. The loser, meanwhile, will plunge ever deeper into the depths of their despair.
Barcelona were supposed to win this year’s Champions League – but after a disastrous night in Milan, it isn’t looking like they will. So if they should be knocked out of the Copa del Rey as well, a dark pall will slide over what was supposed to be yet another year of shimmering glory.
Real faded from league contention almost as soon it began, courtesy of an uncharacteristic 3-2-2 start and plenty of stumbles since. In the Champions League, meanwhile, they will need to get a result at Manchester United after settling for a 1-1 draw at home, handing their guests the crucial advantage on away goals.
To make matters worse, Barca and Real were both deeply unconvincing in their respective 2-1 come-from-behind wins over Sevilla and Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday, even considering that they rested some regulars.
Manager Jose Mourinho is already shouldering immense pressure, from outside of the club as well as within his squad, where the veteran core has been vocal about its fatigue with their emotional boss. He surely won’t be long for Real, and getting bounced from the competition he’s most likely to win this year is the last thing he needs.
Barcelona doesn’t even have a manager: their coach, Tito Vilanova is undergoing cancer treatment in New York. His assistant, Jordi Roura, has the reins — and has seen the team let slip goals over the past twelve games.
As is natural in Spain, both coaches started lobbing their jabs and gabs back and forth through a willing press. It began innocuously enough, with Roura saying that he hoped the referees won’t be a factor, which, in truth, they almost always are in this hard-fought and nerve-shattering rivalry.
Mourinho, who has never been shy about starting a vicious war of words or indeed escalating one, responded sarcastically that he’d “prefer to stay within the lessons we have received in the past from Barcelona – lessons in sportsmanship, how to be in football. Not talking about referees, not surrounding them, trying to get opponents booked.” He was referring, of course, to Real’s gripe about Barca players’ supposed penchant for flopping and badgering the ref.
Barca right back Dani Alves, meanwhile, said that “if we play at 100 percent, we will be back in another big final. It just depends on us.” He added that “Madrid has to go for it because their entire season is on the line.”
Barca talisman Lionel Messi, the least self-absorbed superstar to ever walk the earth, implored his teammates to “not go crazy about the result in Milan or the first half against Sevilla.”
“In front of our own fans we do not have any choice but to go for a win against Real Madrid,” added the tiny Argentine forward. “We cannot start thinking that a goalless draw will be enough.” It will, technically, since Barca’s away goal in Madrid will count double if the score remains as is.
But his point stands. As ever, this game has as many geopolitical implications as sporting ones. The Clasico, so called, has always served as a proxy for the struggle between the central Spanish government in Madrid – and at one time General Franco’s dictatorship – and secession-minded Catalonia and its capital and pride Barcelona.
Nothing brings their region greater pleasure than when Barca gets one over the capital’s symbol. One would think Franco-era tensions might have eroded by now, but Catalonia continues to agitate for its independence, a sentiment that has strengthened lately, as Spain slogs through a crippling recession.
Almost 111 years and 221 games since their first contest in 1902 (a 3-1 Barca win in Madrid), the Clasico remains an urgent game, a standoff between clashing ideologies and identities manifested as a soccer game.
Tempers will flare; exceptions will be taken.
And when it’s all over, they’ll rest uncomfortably in the knowledge that they have to face each other again in a league game on Saturday, in Madrid.