BARCELONA — Let me remind you of a Clasico-related statistic which is absolutely jaw-dropping and seems to be barely mentioned.
Real Madrid are, pound for pound, the most successful and prestigious club side in the history of football. No doubt about it. Not because they’ve won the most Spanish league titles by far (34 to Barcelona’s 26), but because they have utterly dominated the most powerful footballing continent since the European Cup was invented in the 1950s.
Whether it’s the early stranglehold of five straight European Cup wins from 1956-1960, the epic middle stage between 1998’s redemption and perhaps the greatest goal in a Champions league final (Zinedine Zidane‘s volley in 2002), or the first hat trick of wins (2016-18) since Bayern Munich (1974-76), Real Madrid write big football stories and paint their signature across their continent with a flourish.
So, consider this: Real Madrid, this footballing behemoth, have retained the Spanish title just once — yes, please check your eyes, ONCE in the past 30 years.
This is the competition which many top footballers and managers emphasise, over and again, is the most significant prize. The 38-week slog; a litmus test not simply of budget or skill but of grit, determination, character, luck and sheer bloody-mindedness. The competition which Zidane said made him the “happiest” to have won.
From 1990 onwards Los Blancos have won the title in 1995, 1997, 2001, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2017 and 2020. But for the exception of the Fabio Capello/Bernd Schuster follow-on triumphs from 2006-08, Real Madrid conquering La Liga has been followed by either Deportivo La Coruna, Valencia, Atletico or Barcelona taking it away from them.
What’s that saying about it being easier to reach the top than to stay there? A priori, this was their year. The opportunity to end this dismal record was simply beckoning to them: Barcelona and Valencia in various degrees of disarray; Atletico Madrid fighting to keep hold of Jan Oblak and Jose Gimenez, without the budget to reinforce heavily and Thomas Partey heading to London; Sevilla threatening but without any experience of winning Spain‘s Primera Division since 1946.
It’s not quite Madrid’s league just for the taking, but a certainly a golden chance to remove a stain on their otherwise gleaming record and retain their crown.
Cut to the present. As the first Clasico of the season approaches, Madrid are admittedly just a point off the top, having played fewer matches than the leaders, and are ahead of traditional rivals Atleti and Barca — who both have a game in hand.
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However, Zidane’s team has degenerated from playing pretty unimpressively in the first few weeks to performing absolutely atrociously against newly-promoted Cadiz to lose 1-0 last weekend. As the proud Frenchman, such a magnet for success both as a footballer or coach, admitted glumly afterwards: “If Cadiz had stuck two or three past us in that first half then no drama, we’d have had no excuses.” And this about a modest Andaluz club which had never won away at Real Madrid before in their history and only tasted top division football for the first time in 1977.
Madrid then followed up that result with something approaching humiliation in a 3-2 defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League on Wednesday. The underlying trend, despite what La Liga’s table says, is that Madrid’s players, in the main, look jaded, not sufficiently committed to the hard work which made them domestically formidable last season.
From powerful to puny in just a few short weeks. There are exceptions, and the prognosis is not wholly gloomy, but Saturday’s Clasico at Camp Nou comes at a bad time. Part of Madrid’s apparently allergic reaction to winning the Spanish title in the first place is that they also have an awful habit of competing poorly in the first Clasico of their title-defence season.
Indeed Los Blancos haven’t won that first Clasico as defending champions since December 2007. It was a firm win, at Camp Nou, with a lovely Julio Baptista lob over Victor Valdes as its emblem — Madrid’s second consecutive Spanish championship was eventually won at a canter a few months later. But that win unleashed a whirlwind of new football ideas, personalities and playing philosophy at Camp Nou, with Pep Guardiola being wooed by Joan Laporta not long after Baptista’s shot hit the net … though that’s a whole different story.
A Clasico which is played on matchday seven, in mid-October, simply can’t be called “title-crucial” or a definitive moment for either Barcelona or Madrid. Nevertheless, an away win for Zidane’s troubled side would be a massive first step away from this three-decade-long tendency to go all weak and floppy in their title defence.
Lose and there’s certainly time to regroup, recoup the distance and end up with the trophy; win, however, and there would definitely be psychological significance — positive for the reigning champions and negative for the Bambi-steps which Ronald Koeman and his band of talented youngsters are beginning to take in Barcelona.
Unless you’re a die-hard Barcelona fan it’s arguable that if Madrid were at full speed, if most of their senior players performed around their best, then Koeman’s re-shaping of the squad and his daring penchant for trusting ability irrespective of youth might be buffeted off course. Temporarily at least.
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Barcelona are undoubtedly working harder, look less lackadaisical, in fact disinterested, than under Quique Setien. In patches against a paper-thin Villarreal, throughout the 10-man victory over Celta in Vigo, for first-half spells in the 1-0 loss against Getafe, then for the majority of their 5-1 thrashing of Ferencvaros in the Champions League, Barcelona have been genuinely fun to watch.
There’s a huge wave of freshness, impishness, hard work, inventiveness and daring from Sergino Dest, Pedri, Francisco Trincao, Ansu Fati, Ronald Araujo and even the long-absent and mysteriously dopy Ousmane Dembele. Bit by bit, Frenkie de Jong is dusting off his armoury of skills, Lionel Messi isn’t sulking, Miralem Pjanic will soon be pushing to take Sergio Busquets‘ position and Philippe Coutinho has become a much more confident, impulsive footballer since his boot-camp reboot saw him win the Treble on loan at Bayern Munich.
Nevertheless there’s a scenario where four guys who are 20 or under — Trincao, Pedri, Ansu and Dest — have important roles against Madrid. Ditto two constantly injured strangers to the first-team, Junior Firpo and Dembele.
These are all, in the heat of a “no quarter given” battle, decent-sized risks. And Koeman now has a big dilemma as to whether Antoine Griezmann, who just can’t catch a break and probably wouldn’t be confident of catching a beach ball if it were thrown to him from close range, should start. Good player, good guy, but a good distance away from looking convincing.
So if Zidane had an XI with Thibaut Courtois, Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, Ferland Mendy, Luka Modric, Federico Valverde, Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard all fit, in decent form and brimming with competitive aggression, you’d back them to come to Camp Nou and win. But he doesn’t. Far from it.
That Casemiro and Courtois are by far two of Madrid’s three most important footballers — the other being Ramos — tells you a lot. This stellar, scintillating, star-driven football outfit don’t yet have a player — not Benzema, not Vinicius Jr. (yet), nor Hazard (when?), certainly not poor old €60m striker Luka Jovic who is making Griezmann’s current form look like Ballon d’Or standard — who takes our breath away. No creative magician; no relentless goal poacher.
Benzema is a diamond, but he’s more of an acquired taste and, currently, he’s struggling for form; Vinicius is gradually adding brains to his brio and bravado; while Hazard, according to his Belgium teammate Courtois, will “erupt” soon. Well, perhaps in mid-November according to the smoke signals from Real Madrid’s Valdebebas training ground.
Will Ramos definitely be fit and on form? I would have said that he’ll play come hell or high water but why is it always on him, aged 34 and perpetually the hungriest man at Real Madrid, who’s got to produce the Seventh Cavalry act in matches which threaten to slip away?
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Casemiro and Valverde are still shaking off the jet lag that comes from respective 30-hour round trips from Brazil and Uruguay and the pressure of playing for their nations in South America’s World Cup qualification process. But it’s Toni Kroos who perturbs me. All season, after a masterclass in winning the title, the German midfield manipulator has been second to the loose ball, slow to press and disinterested in running back to cover gaps. This Madrid team can’t afford that.
And they simply don’t score a sufficient number of goals either. Not killer goals when they are on top; not lucky goals when they pinch a win; not goals to get out of jail with a draw; not goals which divert in off Benzema’s backside.
In their past 14 Liga matches you’ll find eight single-goal wins, one 0-0 draw and a single-goal defeat — perpetually teetering on a tightrope. Those single-goal wins look like things of shimmering beauty when you look at them as stats, they count for three points just the same as a 5-0 thrashing and they won Zidane’s squad the title, but the margin for error, if it continues as it has this season, is too slim. Only three two-goal margins in 14 matches for a club like Madrid is not a healthy sign.
Still, Madrid are jam-packed full of talent and character and are liable to squeeze some of those attractive facets out of tired limbs and minds when they see Blaugrana stripes in front of them this weekend. Barcelona are twinkle-toed, slender, and deft — but, last week, Getafe showed Madrid how to outmuscle them.
If Koeman gets his team selection right and they play at a high, confident tempo, then Barca can win. But if Zidane is to become the first Real manager in 30 long years to retain the title, then it’s Madrid who go into the game knowing that they “must” win.