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:
Sergi Roberto Pique Lenglet Alba
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.