Yikes. Portents, anguish, violence, history, independence chants, the Best Player in the World vs the Best Player in the Galaxy … it’s the end of the world as we know it.
The Liga is in the balance, don’t ya know, as our beloved sprites stagger into this match off the heels of two … count ’em … TWO draws, as RM roll into the Camp Nou having won its last two matches. Oh, lawd, hide the Catalan women and children (never mind, they can’t get in anyhow), because it’s going to be ugly. Our defense can’t stop a schoolboy team from scoring, and legend has it that RM has a pair of colossi that doth bestride the earth, clearing countries at a single bound.
It’s so daunting that I am not even going to watch, preferring instead to cower in a corner, bleating in the hopes my mommy’s sixth mama sense will kick off and make her rush to my side to rescue me.
“Son! What’s the matter, son!”
“It’s those things in the white. Why are they killing my little ones? Make it stop! (whimper)”
Or maybe not. Maybe, what if this is just a football match, portents, weight and zillions of Euros in transfer fees and salaries aside. What if this is just the two of the best teams in the world, knocking heads in an early-season encounter that will decide about feck all.
And because the two sides have never been more alike, let’s have a gander at the similarities.
They have The Eyebrow, Carlo Ancelotti, who rolled into town fresh off riding herd over yet another collection of millionaires with immense transfer fees at Paris St.-Germain. Ancelotti has been well traveled, and is still wrestling with how to deploy his forces in a way that gets the most from them.
We have Mr. Pistachio, Gerardo Martino, who rolled into town under more difficult circumstances, after our previous coach, Tito Vilanova, had to step down due to a recurrence of the cancer he has been battling. Martino rolled into town, fresh off telling his wife not to put too much fabric softener in the underwear wash, but with a busy past that included an overachieving World Cup side and a beautiful Newell’s Old Boys
Boca Juniors side. Martino has been well traveled, and is still wrestling with how to deploy his forces in a way that gets the most from them.
Did someone say transfer?
Neymar. Senior, Junior, whatever, the dude was spendy. Not as spendy as he would have been in the open market, but spendy nonetheless, at 57 million smackeroos. He came with a colossal amount of hype and some baggage, and started out with his new club in incendiary fashion. He is still integrating into the side, but is showing more than a little promise, as in “Holy crap, that boy can play some football.”
Gareth Bale was even MORE spendy than Neymar, with a world record transfer fee of in the neighborhood of 100 million. Whoa. He showed up kinda gimpy, then was able to play and tapped in a goal and supposedly the Bale Era was off with a bang. Until his back did or didn’t flare up, and is or isn’t potentially debilitating, dependent upon whose publication you read. It’s safe to say that Bale has NOT to date set the world on fire, though if someone were to get an open flame close enough to his gelled pate, all bets are off.
With new coaches, both teams are dealing with new systems, with mixed results. Barça, like its rival in the capitol city, has been rampant, clunky and all points in between. Form is fleeting as the club(s) wrestle with an injury to a key part, Messi and Bale.
Both sets of supporters say that our defense stinks, both sets of supporters with that the offenses would get the hell sorted, so that their club can return to the arduous task of ruling the galaxy.
Best. Player. Ever.
Ronaldo and Messi, Thong Boy and the Troglodyte. No matter how you slice it, both of them are brilliant. One scores a hat trick, the other scores a hat trick. One scores two against the other’s club, and the other one returns the favor. They are the two best players in the game, with the ability to take over and define a match like few players, and they play for the bitter rival.
Both will be the most important men on the pitch for their respective sides, and culers have a bit more to worry about on that score than RM supporters. Ronaldo is fit and rampant. Messi is just coming off a nagging injury and has been, to be generous, mediocre in his last two outings, at Osasuna and Milan. If he shows up, ready and raring to go, it’s going to be a long day for RM’s back line.
So what’s going to happen?
If I knew that, I would already have money down on the outcome. Who the hell knows? It could be a manita either way, a 1-1 draw or any random assemblage of numbers you want to throw out there. They have been set up to beat us, their strengths cultivated to match up against our weaknesses, certain players deployed with the idea of minimizing the way that we play.
Traditionally, we haven’t cared. This is how we play. Now beat it. What has people worried is that in recent history, they have a pretty darned good record against us. But the matches have been close, with a play or two tipping the balance. But we have always played like we play, until now. Now, things are different for a few very important reasons:
— Bale. Until now it has been “stop Ronaldo,” even if we haven’t been able to always do that. Bale, if he starts, will be immense, potentially decisive coming off the bench to run at our tired defenders.
— DiMaria. Nothing like competition to make a lad find religion.
— Neymar. The left side is now open for business. If Arbeloa tries business as usual, even with The Great Mallenco reffing, he will be lucky to survive the half.
— Busquets. More. Better. Forward thinking. Badass.
— Puyol. The man he once was? Nope. Plenty of man to fire up just a bit of trepidation in RM attackers? You bet.
— Valdes. Never been better. A few stops here and there could be key.
— Martino. We have always played our way, until now. He is very good at making adjustments on the fly, and substituting to facilitate those adjustments.
Why you should be happy I’m not coach
I would roll out with:
Alves Bartra Puyol Adriano
Fabregas Busquets Xavi
Sanchez Neymar Pedro
That’s right. I wouldn’t start Messi, for a number of reasons:
— I hate him. It’s well documented.
— He isn’t on form, just coming off an injury and a somnambulant performance against Milan.
— A game plan set up to stop him is suddenly stood on its ear.
— We would win the psychological battle long enough (hopefully) to make them hesitant.
There is also the “let’s get buck-assed wild lineup:
Alves Pique Mascherano Puyol
Busquets Messi Xavi
Fabregas Neymar Sanchez
This lineup has creativity with the ball, the ability to keep it in a hurricane, shooting from distance and the potential for goals from the midfield with Messi, who in this case would be functioning as a true 10. Puyol performing as a defensive LB is well within his capabilities, also.
But because our actual coach isn’t a crackhead, expect to see the (?) gala XI:
Alves Pique Puyol Adriano
Iniesta Busquets Xavi
Sanchez Messi Neymar
We should all have confidence in that lineup (though you might see Fabregas in for Sanchez, and tactical permutations such as Messi on right wing) because it has gobs of ability, but on form, Fabregas is playing better than Iniesta right now. I bet you Martino knows that as well, but doesn’t yet have the carte blanche to go all cray cray like that.
The other argument for Iniesta is that he doesn’t lose the ball, and if Martino’s worries about RM’s transition game are genuine, look for less swashbuckling and more tika taka. That means Iniesta.
I have absolutely NO idea. Usually, you can pretty well predict how a Classic is going to go, based on form. But both teams are funky/clunky. Could be a manita either way, could be a 0-0 draw. I have about as much chance of predicting the final score as I do of predicting the direction of this squirrel scurrying around in my backyard right now. But, for the sake of argument, and folks having something to call me a dumbass about later, I say:
(If they score first) 2-2
(If we score first) 3-1
Strangely enough, I am as calm about a Classic as I have been in some time, in part because there are just too many unanswered questions. If Sleepwalking Messi shows up again, we’re going to be in trouble. If “Straight Flush” Pique shows up to dabble in his footballing hobby, we’re going to be in trouble.
Gloom and doomers say it’s easier for them to score, that we’re vulnerable on set pieces, that we don’t have pace to match up with Bale and Ronaldo, that a resurgent DiMaria will be a constant danger.
I say that for every benefit that people can point to, buttressing their claims that we are in trouble, I have a few of my own, such as Neymar 1-v-1 on Arbeloa or whoever they stick out there, Ozil’s difference-making movement and vision gone, the significant improvement of Busquets as well as the fact that Barça have more than one way to score. Graham Hunter says draw, Tim Stannard says a loss for us. Whatever. We have the tools, talent and are a better club than we have been since the manita side, diverse and dangerous, deliberate or dashing.
I have full confidence in our team and its players. Now let’s do this.