A classic preview, aka “All in!”

This is a Classic for a different era.

Many of us old-timers remember a different era of football, pre-Ronaldinho, pre global superstar. Barça was a Catalan club, still run by a crappy board because, except for a brief sliver of time after Laporta was elected and pre-schism, when has that ever not been true. And the Classic was Barça vs Real Madrid, its eternal rival.

Motivations for that enmity have changed over time. The rivalry is less political now for many. It morphed, in this age of the global superstar, into a Messi vs Ronaldo duel. For others, they aren’t quite sure about the depth of their scorn. It’s a football match, and a big one. But it’s just three points in the standings, like any other match. What’s the deal?

The memories of my first live Classic are pure. So pure. Arriving before the Cant, before anything, even the warmups, and sitting in yuor seat was an experience. It was the year of the Ibrahimovic winner. When Real Madrid came out to warm up, the team was greeted with a wave of hatred so pure you could almost surf it. We screamed, bayed, whistled and stomped our feet. During the anthem, one of the massive banners cascaded down from the upper levels of the stadium and underneath it, we held our arms aloft and screamed as if our cries weren’t muffled, as if our words alone could propel the team to victory against its bitter rival.

That match mattered.

On Twitter today, hours before the match, someone asked if people were excited about the match, or no? Why? Because Messi wasn’t playing. But there is always Barça. Watching Messi in the stands, his arm in a sling during the Inter Champions League match, was remarkable. He was one of us, watching his team, our team, with rapt attention as runs materialized, chances came and went, goals were scored. Messi didn’t care that Messi wasn’t playing. He was watching his team, and that was enough. And they won, which was even better.

Barça is a football club that has had, from the inception of the Ronaldinho era, a series of global superstars. Ronaldinho passed the torch to Messi, but there were others who are known in that way that makes someone follow a club because of the person wearing the shirt. Some Barça supporters are now PSG supporters because of a Neymar affiliation. Some Real Madrid supporters are now Juventus supporters after Ronaldo left for Turin. That is modern football, where athletes are corporations, marketing bonanzas that so many adore. We become more than fans as we debate their lives, sporting exploits and pop cultural import on social media. It becomes easy to forget, sometimes, that there is still a team wrapped around that iconic personality.

This will be the first Classic in more than a decade with neither Messi nor Ronaldo. The last one was when Julio Baptista scored the winner, a goal that he couldn’t even replicate in his dreams, but that he pulled off on that day, and it was awful, something felt in the pit of the stomach. And to hell with him. That match mattered. And this match matters.

There are lots of subtexts, biggest amonng them how both teams will fare without their talismanic superstars. But there is also the story of the Real Madrid coach, whose job is hanging by a thread, who media reports suggest won’t be saved even by a draw, even by a narrow win. There is Ernesto Valverde, whose team, coming off a convincing romp against a difficult Champions League opponent, preceded by a Liga win against a rival for top of the table, must show that it isn’t a fluke, even as those with eyes already know this.

And there is no Messi, at least not on the pitch. He will be in the stands, and his guts will be in knots like the rest of us. Because he is not only the greatest player ever to play and a Barça talisman. He is culer. He understands how much this match matters, not only because he has contested so many, watched so many coming up through La Masia. He is culer.

Even if both teams were wrestling to keep from being relegated, this match would still be huge. Its luster can’t be diminished. There will be people in stands who remember when the Camp Nou was the only place that you could publicly speak Catalan, who will tremble with pride at the chant for independence that will commence at the 17:14 mark. Mes que un club, mes que un match.

The players change, the coaches change. What never changes is the weight of this match. More than bragging rights, it’s the weight, the morbo that spreads like ripples in a pond. This match is everything, even as it is only three points.


It would surprise me if Valverde didn’t go with a replication of the Inter lineup. It worked, the result fit the ideal that he wants for him team, which is match control. Real Madrid have weaknesses, particularly prone to pace up front, a scything player who can get at their defense with speed and precision. Barça have such a player, and had he played up to anything approaching his immense potential, Ousmane Dembele wouldn’t have as much of a chance to make the starting XI today as Messi does.

The war will be for midfield control, because both teams still understand, despite the reality that the modern game has moved to the flanks, and at the feet of speedy, creative fullbacks. both teams are still relics of how things used to be, in many ways. Arthur, Raktic, Busquets, Modric, Kroos, Isco. The team that wins the midfield battle today will almost certainly win the match, for it will have control of the match.

Both rosters are stuffed with big-match players, and focus will be high. It would be odd if an error defined this one today, not only because of the players but because both coaches like things to be buttoned up. Real Madrid will have to watch out for Luis Suarez, Barça will have to watch out for Karim Benzema, who seems to always grow in stature when facing Barça.

Neither team has played to its potential this season, RM languishing in seventh place in the table, Barça in second. That is unusual for both teams, so expect both to want to make a statement today. People who are expecting an easy match because of the opponent position in the standings are deluded. This will be a war, and one that Barça could well lose. So, the probable XI:

Ter Stegen
Sergi Roberto Pique Lenglet Alba
Arthur Rakitic
Coutinho Suarez

The outcome? Who knows. A Classic hasn’t been this up in the air in years, but you can see a substitute making the difference in this one, Dembele for Barça, Asensio for Real Madrid, assuming he doesn’t start. A fearless prediction? 2-1, Barça, and a fraught 90 minutes.

Let’s do this.

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.


  1. Yup, sitting here waiting for it feverishly trying various things to improve my streaming experience with Eleven Sports. Decided I need to go that wired route from phone to TV but no time to buy cable so I’m stuck with the stutter. At last I’m better than my mate from the football who called me Friday night to invite me to his house to watch the Clasico thinking it would be on Sky !!! Shamefully, he’s not invited to mine. This match is too important to have someone wittering on beside me. My good lady, as always for a Clasico, , has scheduled herself out of the house for a couple of hours. Her price is above rubies, right enough.

    Thought about an unashamed “stuttering” link into talking about the teams but decided life is too short. So, in brief. This is the most dangerous of Clasicos for me. They are desperate and better than they have seemed ( it’s not like they aren’t creating chances) while we haven’t been great but hit form in the last game and now expect that to continue. The old adage here in Scotland is that if Celtic are playing really well going into an Old Firm match providence will ensure a Rangers victory. I kinda have that feeling today.

    We put a lot of effort into Inter. Our defence played super well to cut most threats out before they got near TS both our goals had a touch of magic about them in Suarez’s pass and Alba’s superb control and finish. Luck may have something else in mind for us today so my wishes are a bit simpler. I want to see a sign that we can hold the ball that well against a team that will press and hound us rather than sit back and trust their defence. At the same time, when we do go forward we need bodies in their box.

    Finally, with no Messi to launch into orbit, expect Ramos to turn up the niggle on Suarez in the hope of getting him sent off. I sensed Suarez’s desperation to do well in Messi’s absence has moved him closer to the emotional edge against Inter. He needs to keep it in check today.

    And with that, bring it on . . .

  2. Spot on Kxevin. That’s Valverde for you, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Hope your crystal ball works on the scoreline too, fingers crossed

  3. Perhaps understated, but the strength of this team runs deep. If anyone still can’t recognize that, they have my sympathies.

    5-1, 5-1, 5-1, 5-1
    Should have been 5-0
    Suarez is back.
    Ramos is done.
    Lopetegui is gone.

  5. Well, it was a thrilling Clasico, Barcelona outclassed Real Madrid in the first half… partly because they were crap, but Barcelona had to score another goal there at least.

    Starting the second half, Madrid got its shit together and made Barça suffer… they had the equalizer there… we got lucky they were a bit wasteful… Valverde reacted a bit late… but made the right subs with Semedo and Dembele, got two goals and the final sub, Vidal, sealed the game…

    A nice week for Barcelona… three victories against quality opposition, and the team seems focused even when Messi is out… great!

    There are still things to fix, though… Valverde should do something to correct the defense, sometimes we give chances too easily… hopefully he will see that and work on it.

    Now there’s a CDR match coming up… I predict it will be more of a “boring game” but that’s good… it’s also the match for playing with the youngest players…

  6. So after 29 Nov 2010, the best football I ever saw in my life,– another Camp Nou manita. HA HA HA
    That first half RM is the worst I have seen them play. We should have been at least 4-0 even without Messi.
    I was hoping Rafinha and Coutinho (the 2 weak players in first half) to be subbed out in half time, but EV waits a bit too long to my liking. Anyways, once Rafinha was out and Dembele came in, we went all out..
    cant stop laughing, and its good am alone in home..
    ha ha ha

    1. They were the right subs… a bit late? I think that as well, but maybe it wasn’t that late… I mean, it’s obvious that big teams like Inter and Madrid are going to lash out everything starting the 2nd half… after being outclassed in the 1st half… Madrid created danger and was on the verge of making it 2-2, but in hindsight… maybe they used most of their energy there… they started to get tired and subbing Dembele at that moment was the perfect time to kill any chances…

      Maybe I’m mistaken, but I’m even thinking that even if they got the 2-2, Barcelona would have scored either way and ended the game 4-2 or 5-2… either way, it’s good to see that the team has fighting spirit and desire to win it all… many expected to see a dull and toothless Barcelona with Messi out, but it’s a nice surprise that it isn’t this way… of course, the team not at its best, but it’s good enough to give a great game against many teams out there…

  7. Very very good match. This is definitely my game of the season so far: all the players were immense barring a lethargic and practically invisible Coutinho.

    Once again, hats off to EV for masterminding a classico for the ages in the absence of the alien Overlord, this match shows EV best qualities and the direction thus team is going under this man. I’ve never really been a fan of his, but slowly but surely he’s winning me over – quite sure most cules feel the same way.

    Madrid were deservedly beaten and played off the park, but the whitewashing wouldn’t have been possible without the presence of the immense fullbacks and decent performance from the CBs, which begs the question “What would have been the scoreline had messi played and Coutinho actually showed up instead of ambling about.?”, Coutinho is an immense talent and a fan favourite but even the most bias of Cules knows his performances for the past few weeks have been decent to outright horrible, he really needs to pick up the himself or face the Dembele treatment( that’s fair.)

    Dembele and Semedo subs were well timed and couldn’t have been better, their effect on the proceedings was even better. This is the strength in depth we’ve been yearning for, glad it’s finally arrived.

    PS: I don’t get all the hate Suarez gets when it’s obvious he’s still a top 3 striker in the world, I’ve been proved right once again. I’d pay to see the expression on Jim’s face when Suarez netted his treble!

    Visca él Barça

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