Saturday’s El Clasico will be an El Clasico like no other. Widely viewed as the most watched club game in the world, when Barcelona take on Real Madrid at the Camp Nou this weekend, the match will be played behind closed doors.
“The game will be strange, as when you play at home in these kinds of games the fans are almost an extra man,” Ronald Koeman told the Barcelona website. “We hope that soon we can have our supporters back at the stadium.”
But this latest installment in the El Clasico series is also unusual in that it could be the last time Lionel Messi features against Real at the Camp Nou.
Between 2009 and 2018 the rivalry between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo was the beguiling sub-plot to each El Clasico meeting.
However long gone are the days when fans would marvel at the sight of Ronaldo and Messi doing battle at the peak of their careers. In fact, Ronaldo is gone completely, now plying his trade at Juventus, and Messi … well, Messi wishes he was gone, too.
Barcelona looks to be counting the cost of forcing a player — the best player in the club’s history, no less — to stay against his wishes, with Messi’s performances dipping this season after publicly saying he had wanted to leave “all year.”
The Argentine, widely regarded as one of the greatest footballers in history, has since said he remains motivated to bring success to Barcelona this season, but that is certainly easier said than done once your heart is set on a move away.
Messi’s performances have understandably dipped way below his own supernatural standards, with only two goals in five games so far this season and both of those coming from the penalty spot.
Fortunately for Barcelona, it has a thrilling new prospect on its hands in 17-year-old Ansu Fati, who is providing fans with hope that there may yet be life after Messi.
Fati, who became Spain’s youngest ever goalscorer in the recent international break, already has four goals in five games this season to cement his place as Barcelona’s top scorer.
New boss Koeman had guided Barcelona to a solid start in La Liga, with two wins and a draw from his opening three games as head coach. However, last Saturday’s surprise 1-0 defeat to Getafe exposed many of the flaws that have plagued Barcelona in recent times.
It’s no secret that the team has been painfully overly reliant on Messi over the past few seasons and it may now finally have to find a way to succeed without leaning heavily on the Argentine’s shoulders.
The wounds from that 8-2 Champions League humiliation to Bayern Munich in last season’s quarterfinals remain fresh and, perhaps most worryingly of all, Barcelona has arguably only fallen even further behind the standards currently being set by Bavarian club.
Tuesday’s 5-1 win against Hungarian club Ferencvaros will have earned Barcelona some brief respite, but triumphing in an El Clasico will do wonders for Koeman’s standing at the Catalan club.
Clash of the crisis clubs
Fortunately for Barcelona, Saturday’s El Clasico certainly won’t be a match Real Madrid is relishing either.
Zinedine Zidane’s side has endured an even more turbulent few days than their rivals, following up its shock weekend defeat to newly-promoted Cadiz — playing in its first La Liga season for 15 years — with an equally surprising home defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League.
With one eye on Saturday’s La Liga clash against Barcelona, Real made several changes to its regular starting lineup, but there could be no excuses for such an insipid and lifeless first-half performance.
Incredibly, Shakhtar was without seven starting players — and 10 in total — due to a combination of positive coronavirus cases and injuries.
“I’ve won a lot with these players, they’ve won a lot for me and I’ll always be with them until the end, it’s they who battle, run and fight and I can feel their support,” said Zidane, per Reuters, looking ahead to Saturday’s game.
“But right now the most important thing is changing the dynamic, and we’ve got good games coming up to be able to do that in, and that’s what makes football so great. When things go wrong, you need to show your character and quality.
“I can’t deny people are saying my future is at stake, but it was the same last year and it was like that in my first spell here, too. I just need to do my job and forget about everything else.”
Real Madrid has gradually improved since Zidane was re-hired as head coach in March 2019, its resurgence culminating a first La Liga title since 2017 at the end of last season — though perhaps, in hindsight, that win was more by proxy given Barcelona’s shambolic form following the restart.
Much like Barcelona, Real has some exciting prospects that are allowing fans to dream the future may be bright. Brazilian forward Vinicius Junior has continued his development as one of Europe’s finest attacking players, while left-back Ferland Mendy is cementing his place as Marcelo’s heir apparent.
For both clubs, it remains to be seen whether the recent results and performances are just a small blip or an indication of the struggles ahead this season.
While Real and Barca may no longer be at their previous peaks, perhaps more accurately resembling two lumbering heavyweight boxers in the twilight of their careers, the precarious position in which both teams and managers find themselves arguably makes Saturday’s clash an even more meaningful occasion.