Clasico first act of four part drama

BY Jamie Trecker • April 14, 2011

The 210th El Gran Clasico kicks off Saturday at the Santiago Bernabeu, the first of four blockbuster meetings between Real Madrid and Barcelona over the next 18 days.

One of the most fiercely contested and avidly followed rivalries in the world, this year's meetings have extra resonance as they are likely to decide not only the Spanish championship, but the Champions League winners and the next holder of Spain's Copa Del Rey to boot.

Never before have four high-profile rivalry matches been staged in such a compressed period of time and rarely if ever have the stakes been higher.

Saturday's game, a pivotal league match that could see Real Madrid lose all hope of the Spanish title, will be immediately followed on Wednesday by the Spanish Cup (Copa Del Rey) final in Valencia. Then, seven days later, the semifinals of the Champions League kick off at the Bernabeu with the return leg just six days afterwards.

Barcelona and Real Madrid are two of the best club teams on the planet, loaded with stars, dripping with glamour and overseen by two of the best managers in any sport. The difference? Barcelona, which leads La Liga by eight points coming into the match, may be the best club team of all-time.

Anchored by a seven-man core of Spanish World Cup winning stars, Barcelona has passed and run its way past virtually all comers. They have lost only once this season in the league and only once in the Champions League.

Much ink has been spilled about Barcelona's fluency and the vision of Andres Iniesta and Xavi. But the real measure of Barcelona's brilliance is how they have been able to keep the consensus world's best player, Lionel Messi, involved in every single game. Credit Pep Guardiola, a former Barcelona player and a tactical visionary. The degree of difficulty required to keep the player every team knows is deadly as the main attacking threat game in and game out is virtually incalculable. The results? Messi has netted 48 goals for the club so far across all competitions this season, equaling a record set some 60 years ago by Telmo Zarra.

Real Madrid have only lost three times this season in Spain, and anywhere else a team with a man who has scored 28 goals in league play would probably be running away with the crown. That man of course is Cristiano Ronaldo. Messi, naturally has done him one better so far in league play making their matchup one of the highest-powered Golden Boot races in memory.

Under Jose Mourinho, Madrid have been gritty and organized, getting spine out of the vastly underrated Ricardo Carvalho, the presence of Xabi Alonso and the cut and thrust of winter transfer Emmanuel Adebayor, who has been liberated since his move from dour Manchester City. while Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira arguably have yet to fully settle in Spain, both German stars are showing their creativity and class. Most remarkable of all has been the rebirth of French striker Karim Benzema, dressed down earlier in the season for a lack of effort, and now a vital player in the Madrid Machine.

But Real have come up second best to Barcelona in dramatic ways this season. The reckoning came last November, when Real Madrid were whipped 5-0 in their first meeting this season. It was nothing less than a clinic, with Xavi and David Villa leading the charge and Real Madrid seeing Sergio Ramos ejected after the match devolved into frustration. Eight Madrid players were carded that evening in an uncharacteristic show of angst, and the normally voluble Mourinho was forced to quietly make the case against his team's abasement.

"Humiliation? No," said Mourinho in a somber press conference post-game. "It's easy to deal with this loss. One team played to their potential tonight and the other played very badly."

Mourinho went on to note that his Madrid remained very much a work in progress while Barcelona was as solid as you get. He had a point, and since that time his Madrid side has gelled.

And yet most observers thought that the league race would be closer at this point. Many felt that Barcelona couldn't possibly keep up their incredible run, especially with key players like Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Carlos Puyol all having played for 18 months straight. They were wrong.

As a result, what normally would be a high powered meeting between two of the world's greatest creators may instead turn out to be a coaching masterclass. Guardiola has gotten the better of Mourinho almost every time they have met, with one big blemish being last year's 3-1 semifinal win when the Special One coached Inter Milan to an unlikely Champions League title. So Mourinho, ever the pragmatist, and mindful that the Champions League is by far the bigger trophy left open to him, would probably prefer not to tip his hand Saturday.

In situations where Madrid has had to play a league match prior to a crucial Champions League match, Mourinho has rotated his lineup, throwing out little used players like Ezequiel Garay and Esteban Granero to give men such as Ozil and Carvalho breathers. But against their bitterest rivals, there will be intense pressure from both the fans and Madrid's flamboyantly outspoken club president, Florentino Perez, to field a giant-killing side.

For Barcelona's part, Pep Guardiola is also aware that he doesn't have to win this match. With seven rounds to play, it would take a collapse of epic proportions for Barcelona to lose the title. But unlike Mourinho, Guardiola has made consistency his hallmark, preferring to play his regular starters and sprinkle players like Ibrahim Afellay and Thiago into the mix to blood the youngsters. It's worth noting that one young player who had to be called up — Andreu Fontas — only entered the mix because of the liver tumour suffered by Eric Abidal.

So for fans, this match is most likely to be an apertif: stylish and perhaps even fun, but hardly revelatory. The real bouts are yet to come, and in short order.

Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay's Premier League.

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