Few events in world soccer are more difficult to predict than El Clasico.
Despite the wildly partisan atmosphere cooked up by the respective crowds at the Santiago Bernabeu and Camp Nou, there is typically little advantage for the home team – the away side has won five of the last nine Clasicos. And it’s as tricky to predict the amount of goals as it is the amount of minutes before the first red card is brandished. (Typically in Sergio Ramos’ direction.)
The only thing you can truly bank upon is that it won’t be a stalemate. There hasn’t been a goalless game between Barcelona and Real Madrid in the last 50 meetings, dating back to November 2002. (But even that game provided one of the greatest moments in Clasico folklore, when the Barcelona faithful welcomed turncoat forward Luis Figo back to the Camp Nou with a pig’s head.)
This Saturday sees the 242nd competitive Clasico and the 179th league meeting. Historically, the two sides are at dead heat in this fixture with 95 wins apiece. But this even balance hides the truth:
Barcelona has had the edge over its arch enemy for some time.
The Blaugrana booked their sixth successive Copa Del Rey final appearance on Wednesday with a 3-0 semifinal second leg win at the Bernabeu. Despite being thoroughly outplayed for the first hour, the visitors left Madrid with three goals from four total shots. Luis Suarez – who has scored an impressive 11 goals in 13 games against Los Blancos – heightened the hosts’ ignominy with an audacious Panenka penalty.
Barcelona is now undefeated in its last five Clasico outings, dating back to the 2017 Supercopa de España. With the exception of that preseason trophy, Real Madrid hasn’t won at home in the rivalry in nearly five years. That 3-1 victory at the Bernabeu in October 2014, however, was cancelled out when Barca won the corresponding league fixture and pipped Real to the league title the next spring by a mere two points.
And Santiago Solari will need no reminder of the last league meeting between his side and Barcelona back in October, when the Catalans humiliated Real Madrid in a 5-1 humiliation. That day, their talisman Lionel Messi wasn’t even in the lineup.
If the Madridistas lose this Saturday, they will sit 12 points behind league leaders Barca with only 12 games to play. They will be fighting to stay competitive with city neighbors Atletico Madrid, while being careful not to eat the dust being left in the Barcelona’s wake.
Despite the game taking place in Madrid’s back yard, the bookmakers currently favor the visitors. Not many teams go to the Bernabeu as favorites.
Even more worrying for Real Madrid are the stats suggesting that the balance of power has been tipping since Pep Guardiola took the reins at Barcelona in 2008. Since then, the Blaugrana have won three times as many Clasicos (12) as Real Madrid (four).
This trend is indicative of Barcelona’s domestic dominance in the post-tiki-taka age. Barca’s won 70 percent of the Spanish titles in the past decade, with Real winning only twice. In the short term, however, it is clear that Los Blancos are feeling the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo.
They have suffered shock losses against minnows such as Girona, Leganes and Eibar this season – the kind of games where Ronaldo has traditionally dragged them over the line.
Against Barca on Wednesday, Madrid had 14 shots on goal without scoring. One would imagine that the Portuguese superstar wouldn’t have let so many opportunities go begging. Since Ronaldo upped sticks to Italy, Madrid has scored only two Clasico goals while conceding nine.
Real Madrid manager Santiago Solari hasn’t beaten Barcelona yet in two tries, and he’ll get his third on Saturday. (Getty)
In the modern era, Real Madrid has built the foundations of its success from a Galáctico policy. But now, there’s no “box office” Galáctico to fall back upon. In the buildup to February’s clash with Atleti, promotional tweets and TV spots highlighted the star player from each team, with Sergio Ramos being designated for Real Madrid. The Spaniard is undoubtedly a leader for the team, but a club that prides itself on attack-minded soccer now has the name of a defender up on the marquee.
It was Florentino Perez’s intention to build the team around Gareth Bale at the point when Ronaldo left. But that simply hasn’t happened. The Welshman scored his 100th goal for the club against Atleti last month, but his injury record and perceived inconsistency have done little to bolster his reputation with the fans. There were whistles from some sections as he made his substitute appearance on Wednesday evening, and his popularity is apparently no greater within his own team. He has learned little Spanish, he is reportedly known as “the golfer” for his preference for holes over goals, and he eschews late-night team bonding meals due to his early bedtime.
At a time when Messi clearly inspires belief in his side, Madrid’s front line lacks that kind of symbolic character.
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom for Real. Wednesday’s Clasico in the Copa del Rey might have played out very differently if Vinicius Junior’s early penalty claim had not been waved away. Since his €45m summer transfer, the young Brazilian has risen from the reserve side in a way that the overhyped Martin Ødegaard never could. Vinicius had six shots on Wednesday, more than the entire Barca team combined. Behind him on the left flank, meanwhile, Reguilón has shown himself to be a highly worthy successor to Marcelo. He combines defensive fortitude with plenty of attacking threat down the channel.
And while Barcelona may be winning the battle, Real is winning the war, having won eight more league titles and eight more European Cups than its rival. It will take a long time if that balance is ever redressed.
Plus, it’s also worth noting that Real Madrid has also boasted its own period of Clasico domination. In the early 2000s, during the golden era of the Galácticos, Madrid went six of them undefeated. Barca can only match that streak this weekend.
For now, the Blaugrana hold the advantage. But the balance of power in this notoriously unpredictable fixture can quickly change – and Los Blancos can bring themselves in from the Clasico wilderness with a statement win this weekend.
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