Saturday, April 10, 2010

El Clasico – Who will reign in Spain? Real Madrid or Barcelona ?The two teams clash at the Santiago Bernabeu to decide the title victor's

As the Champions League quarterfinals came to an end on Wednesday night, a new joke emerged in Spain at the expense of Real Madrid’s president Florentino Perez. The joke was that he called up his director of football, Jorge Valdano, and asked him to start negotiations to buy Inter Milan’s Wesley Sneijder and Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben, the respective scorers for the two CL semi-finalists.
The problem, of course, is that both players were dumped after being considered surplus to requirements at the Santiago Bernabeu just before the start of the season.
So, while Perez got his wish back in the summer of 2009 with the annual player movement in-and-out of Madrid, it was his counterpart from Barcelona who carried the hopes of Spain into the CL semi-finals this year.

That contrast will come to play tonight (Sunday, 4am) as the two giants of Spanish football meet at the Bernabeu in the latest edition of the biggest derby in the world, outside of England.
Even if for some strange reason, you forgot that it was the Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo duel, it will still be a highly entertaining game of Spanish football for all football aficionados.
It is rare that a player thumping in 25 goals in a season so far can still be considered yesterday’s news, but that is how one can describe Ronaldo compared with the abundant accolades showered on Messi in recent weeks.
That’s not to say that the Portuguese has not performed admirably in his first year in La Liga. It is just that the magic of Messi on the pitch adds to the mystery of the contrast in personalities of the two players, making it a case of the simple street kid versus the spoilt superstar.
Ironically, the two clubs’ rivalry originated from non-football related issues, or to be more precise, a political one. Madrid and Barcelona are the two largest cities in Spain, and they are often identified with “Spanishness” and Catalanism, respectively, whilst the clubs are the most successful and influential football clubs in the country.
The enmity between the historic rivals spiralled from the moment in 1953 when Argentine-born legend, Alfredo Di Stefano, controversially signed for Los Merengues after initially agreeing to join Barca. The Catalans claimed dictator General Franco tipped the balance Real’s way.
Di Stefano went on to help Madrid to the first five European Cups and eight Liga titles, forming the bedrock of the club’s grand status within world football.
The rivalry has also been heightened many times over by Real Madrid and Barcelona top players defecting to their arch-rival. Notable Barcelona players who have taken the “Puente Aereo” to Real Madrid include Bernd Schuster (1988), Michael Laudrup (1994) and Luís Figo (2000). Luis Enrique switched from Real Madrid to Barcelona in 1996 and went on to captain the Blaugrana.
The clubs are, quite simply, obsessed with each other. The media is happy to build it up – it sells millions of papers – and fans around the world are fascinated by one of the most ferocious derbies in football, despite the 630km that separate the rival cities!
When Barcelona swept all before them last season, Real responded by spending a fortune on the best players in the world. Barca countered the arrivals of Ronaldo, Kaka, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso by bringing in their own marquee signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, even though it meant parting with €40 million (RM172 million) and Samuel Eto’o. They had to be seen to be doing something.
Barcelona come into this match in full confidence after dissecting Arsenal in the mid-week second leg quarterfinal Champions League tie. And they owe it all to one man.
It is getting increasingly difficult not to resort to hyperbole when describing the feats of Messi. However, fair judgement should be withheld until after the 2010 World Cup in South Africa this summer, when the 22-year-old will carry the hopes of Argentina.
If Messi can still perform then as he does for Barcelona, he truly will rank alongside Pele, Di Stefano, Johan Cruyff and Diego Maradona.
Still, he sits below his compatriot, Maradona. The footballing legend and current national team coach was not only the maestro in successful teams — Napoli, Barcelona and Argentina — but Maradona also was the team.
Of recent greats, Messi seems to be even under the shadow of Zinédine Zidane, in that Messi does not aspire to be the conductor of his side, but simply the dazzling virtuoso.
That said, Messi has been in stunning form this season and took his tally for the campaign to 39 goals in all competitions with all four in Tuesday’s 4-1 win over a much-weakened Arsenal line-up.
Ronaldo has added to the growing list of plaudits for Barcelona superstar Messi, but warned it would be a mistake for Real Madrid to concentrate only on the Argentinian playmaker in this weekend’s “El Clasico”.
Messi has scored 15 goals in his last 10 games, including three hat-tricks, and is only going to be one of the major figures tonight.
“He’s phenomenal, but Messi doesn’t play on his own. The coach and his team-mates deserve credit as well. Whoever knows about football knows what I’m saying,” Ronaldo added.
Last year, the Madrid side attempted to kick him off the ball with some shockingly blatant fouls, but Messi has proven himself capable of fending off such treatment. Give him space to run at defenders and his goal tally of 37 in 42 games this season will surely increase.
Barca makes the trip to Madrid this weekend with both clubs locked on 77 points. In a league that is decided on a head-to-head record rather than goal difference in the result of a tie, it is imperative for Real Madrid to pick up the three points and overturn the 1-0 deficit from last November’s clash at the Nou Camp.
Besides Messi, there is another Argentinian who has been bagging the goals in the Primera Liga. He is Gonzalo Higuain and the only thing keeping him from the spotlight is the star-studded line-up Real Madrid possess.
The 22-year-old took his tally of goals to 24 for the season during last weekend’s 2-0 win over Racing Santander, and he is now just two behind Messi at the top of the Spanish league scoring charts.
Real are also sweating on the fitness of maestro Kaka who looks to be in danger of missing out on the tie as he has been struggling to deal with a hernia injury the past month. His participation remains in severe doubt, with Rafael van der Vaart set to deputise once again should he fail to make it.
Benzema is still not 100 per cent fit, despite returning to training, and Christoph Metzelder still has nightmares about the 6-2 drubbing last season.
Barca, on the other hand, will be missing Eric Abidal after he aggravated his thigh injury against Arsenal. Gerard Pique and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are both struggling to be fit.
Pep Guardiola’s men have won their last three meetings against Real Madrid, netting an average of three goals per game, but Manuel Pellegrini’s side are on a run of 12 consecutive league wins, and have notched-up 15 wins in a row at home, so they won’t be pushovers. They have also netted 83 goals in total – eight more than Barca.
However, Madrid were in similarly good form going into last season’s corresponding fixture, which was also a vital game in the title race but ended up being one of the most painful in the club’s illustrious history.
Over the last five seasons Real Madrid have only emerged victors once, in December 2007. They even did the double on Barca that season.
Real Madrid have found this particular manifestation of Barça rather hard to take, especially given the 6-2 defeat of last season.
No doubt, some measure of revenge will go a long way towards wiping away the humiliation at the Bernabeu last season, or at the least, wrest back some dignity.
With Real having to go all out in this match to secure a win for reasons I have mentioned above, I can see Perez having the last laugh watching the match from his presidential box at the stadium tonight. A narrow win is on the cards for the home side.

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