El viernes de la semana pasada mandé un previo para el partido, pero no salió publicado a tiempo, así que parte de ello lo reescribí para usarlo de postpartido. Hoy nos dicen que debido a cambios en la web, se va a cerrar la Fanzone y se incluirán los artículos en el blog general de fútbol del Times, junto a los redactores profesionales, lo cual debiera aumentar el número de gente que nos lee. Aparte, a partir de junio el Times va a empezar a cobrar por acceder a sus sitios en internet, así que seguirá habiendo cambios.
Back in October, after Real Madrid and Barcelona had won all of their first five league matches of the season, I wondered if they would arrive at their meeting on matchday 12 tied on points, and maybe even 100 per cent totals. It didn’t happen then, but five months later it’s going to: after 30 matches, with 8 to go, both teams will battle it out at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu tied on 77 points, having dropped only 13 all season. In 2007, Real won the league on their head-to-head record against Barça, both on 76 points. They lead third-placed Valencia by 21 points, and Sevilla are so far back in fourth (29 behind) that Madrid and Barça have already qualified mathematically for the 2010-2011 Champions League group stage.
In Spain, every team play each other once in the first 19 matches of the season, in what is called the “primera vuelta” (first turn, or first half), and then the return fixtures are played in exactly the same order in the “segunda vuelta”. This means that between playing someone for the first and the second time, you have to play everybody else once in between. Barcelona were leading after the Nou Camp meeting, and Real were up to 5 points behind for a whole month, but now the clubs are tied, so this means Real have had a better points return than their rivals in the 19 intervening matches. Real, in fact are on a run of 12 consecutive victories, the third-best run of this type in Primera División history.
Real have scored 83 league goals. Barça 75. Valencia are again third on 48. Barça’s Leo Messi has scored as many (26) as the 13th-placed club (Osasuna) have all season, and his Real compatriot Claudio Higuaín is only two behind. Put both of them together and they’d be the third top goalscoring team in the division on their own.
Numbers and statistics on this titanic scale could go on for a while. The achievements of both teams this season dwarf what they have done in most other campaigns, but the key is that the two teams are doing this at the same time. A few weeks ago I wrote that Real Madrid had the toughest task of any team in the world in trying to wrest a domestic league title off Barcelona, but that also applies to Barça: no other team would push them as hard for the championship as Real are doing this year, and the numbers bear this out. This could really be the Partido del Siglo (Match of the Century), with no unmerited hype or spin.
Spain doesn’t have a tabloid press in the English style, but England doesn’t have a purely sports press in the Spanish style. Madrid and Barcelona have two sports dailies each, running about a dozen pages every day on these two clubs, even if there’s nothing going on. So you can imagine what this week is being like. Each paper and their websites are trying to outdo each other on wall-to-wall coverage and unearthing of minute detail.
They show pictures of previous classic clásicos, full of fresh-faced Maradonas, Valdanos, Camachos, Del Bosques, Cruyffs, Stoichkovs, Romários, Ronaldos, Beckhams, Linekers, etc. You can re-learn for the umpteenth time the story of how Alfredo Di Stefano ended up at Real instead of Barça and Changed The Course Of History As We Know It. You can watch videos of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo scoring goals as children. You’ll find out that Messi has scored six times against Real (his third ‘favourite’ club to score against), whereas Cristiano Ronaldo has never scored against Barça, even in United colours. Even with a World Cup still to come, the match is seen as decisive for the end-of-year awards for best player for one of the two.
Stars such as Kaká and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who last year were headlining at Inter and Milan find themselves as supporting cast, and even the fact that they will both miss the game through injury is being analysed.
The referee of the game, the respected Manuel Antonio Mejuto González, hasn’t officiated in a Real defeat since 1999 (or “since last century”, which sounds grander). Since then, it has been 18 wins and 4 draws for Real. With everyone trying to protect their stars “for the good of the game”, he will have a very tough match indeed.
How much of a failure are Real Madrid this season?
Real Madrid were never going to get much sympathy this season after their multi-million shopping spree, but after going down on Saturday against Barcelona, some of the criticism has crossed the line into the realm of the unfair. Fan and foe alike, and almost all media pundits, are writing Real’s season off, peppering their comments with a dreaded f-word: failure. It had to be Barcelona’s coach Josep Guardiola, of all people, who offered a balanced assessment in his press conference: “Real’s 77 league points so far this season are an enormous achievement”. 76 points were enough for Real to win the 2007 title, on head-to-head goal difference against Barça, and this year they already had one more point with eight games to go. Yet, it won’t be nearly enough.
This is one of the best sides Real Madrid have ever had in the league. Their bad luck has been to coincide in the same championship with the best club side in history. A few weeks ago I wrote that Real had the toughest task of any team in the world in trying to wrest a domestic league title off Barcelona, but that also applies to Barça: no other team would push them as hard for the championship as Real are doing this year, and the numbers bear this out.
On Saturday both were leading third-placed Valencia by 21 points, and Sevilla were so far back in fourth (29 behind) that Madrid and Barça had already qualified mathematically for the 2010-2011 Champions League group stage. Real had scored 83 league goals. Barça 75. Valencia were again third on 48. Barça’s Leo Messi had scored as many (26) as the 13th-placed club (Osasuna) had all tournament, and his Real compatriot Claudio Higuaín was only two behind. Put both of them together and they’d be the third top goalscoring team in the division on their own.
Numbers and statistics on this titanic scale could go on for a while. The achievements of both teams this season dwarf what they have done in most other campaigns, but the key is that the two teams are doing this at the same time. This really was the Partido del Siglo (Match of the Century), with no unmerited hype or spin.
Another thing to remember is that Barcelona have already been five points ahead of Real Madrid this season, yet the teams arrived at the Bernabéu tied on points. This means that Barça went through a blip. A blip of one defeat and one draw, which would be minuscule for most other clubs, but that was all Madrid needed to draw level on points. It could happen again now. Real have been characterized as flat-track bullies, able to mercilessly sweep small teams aside, and unable to obtain a single point against Barcelona. But this is precisely the weapon they still have left. With seven games to go, a couple of draws would leave Barcelona vulnerable, and Real don’t have the distraction of the Champions League to contend with. It’s not likely, but it’s a possibility, and again Guardiola was judicious in acknowledging this.
However, how many Real players will now abandon the task as mission impossible and go into ‘World Cup mode’ early, looking to avoid injuries which would be too late to recover from now?
The issue, obviously, is that none of this cuts any ice with Real’s fans, fan-like pundits and press. Mention all of these league points amassed and it’s dismissed as a weak excuse. To be fair, Real have had all season a failure which I have been pointing out with each significant defeat: the lack of sense of occasion. After the game Jorge Valdano was saying that Real’s players felt “too tensioned” (he could have said “too tense”, but Valdano doesn’t do short and sweet) before important games, especially at home. Too true: November 10th out of the Copa del Rey against third-division Alcorcón, March 10th out of the Champions League against Lyon, April 10th a decisive league loss against Barcelona. Plus, it might not be the last time Barça win a game at the Bernabéu this season, with the Champions League final to come next month.
How will it be fixed? With more money and yet another manager. And it will happen like this because the fans will demand it. Don't tell them to wait for a promising crop of youngsters to develop or a recently cradle-snatched Argentinian to come good. No trophy, no plaudits.