El Clasico’s New Ingredients

By | October 25, 2013

This article first appeared in LatinoSports.com

As far as sporting events go, there are only a few that can measure up to a clasico.

All the necessary ingredients are there.

First, there’s the regional rivalry that not only transcends sports and politics, but also cuts through issues of cultural identity. Catalonia has its own cultural heritage, so when Real Madrid is in town to play Barcelona, Catalans take opportunity to celebrate their autonomous region, and cast aspersions on the team that is inexorably linked to Franco’s dictatorship, and his attempts to extinguish the Catalan identity.

There’s also that small matter of the ongoing duel between football’s two best players, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Both continue to shatter long established records, and divide footy fans into Messi or Ronaldo camps, spawning contentious debates that do nothing but irritate those of us who just want to enjoy the magic they sprinkle all over the field.

Then there are this season’s marquee signings. After two seemingly endless transfer sagas, Neymar signed for Barcelona, while Gareth Bale inked a contract with Real Madrid. And although the players have had very different starts at their new clubs, there is a sense that they will both play the role of Robin to the teams’ Batmans, Leo and Cris.

However, perhaps the most important ingredients of this Saturday’s Clasico are the club’s new managers, Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino and Carlo Ancelotti.

Since taking the reins at Barcelona, Martino has tinkered with the ‘tiki taka’ system that was so effectively implemented by Pep Guardiola and sustained by Tito Vilanova. The emphasis that was placed on maintaining possession and applying suffocating pressure, has given way to a more direct and pragmatic brand of football.

The transition has been rather seamless, but it has also allowed Barcelona’s opponents to see more of the ball than they have in the past. That was the case in late September when Barcelona conceded most of the possession to Rayo Vallecano – the first time it had done so to another team in over three years – but still managed to score four goals.

Still, that was Rayo Vallecano, and not Real Madrid, and there is a fear that reduced possession will place more pressure on Barcelona’s defense, which has been the team’s weakest sector. Even Carles Puyol’s return has done little do assuage the feeling that the back four could be exposed like it was against Valencia and Sevilla; especially considering Gerard Pique’s potential absence through injury.

Concerns are aplenty in Madrid, as well. Ancelotti, who was brought in to instill a more attractive style of football, has had trouble imposing his philosophy, leading former Merengue, Fabio Cannavaro, to suggest that Real’s players were having trouble “assimilating Mourinho’s departure.”

Under Mourinho, Real Madrid became much more of a counter-attacking team, and while Ancelotti originally attempted to stave off such tactics, he now appears to be acquiescing to them in order to make better use of speedy players like Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria, and Bale.

Ancelotti will also have some selection problems, come Saturday. With Di Maria in top form, it is likely that Bale will remain on the bench, potentially raising questions about his exorbitant fee; particularly since Neymar is proving to be an increasingly important cog in Martino’s system.

Of course, there is the possibility that the Argentine and the Welshman could figure together, but that is unlikely because it would mean that Ronaldo would be feature as the striker, and the Portuguese is clearly unhappy in that role.

Fortunately, both managers have had the opportunity to be completely focused on the necessary adjustments for El Clasico. This will be the first Clasico in quite some time where what happens on the field will not be overshadowed, or at least interrupted, by off the field histrionics and infantile eye-poking. Unlike their predecessors, Martino and Ancelotti should let their players do the talking on the field for them.

At least for ninety-minutes.