One year is a long time in the complex rivalry and deeply inter-twined lives of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Only last autumn Carlo Ancelotti’s European Champions put in one of their most polished performances in recent editions of El Clásico to dispose of their great rivals 3-1 at the Bernabéu. The following week Barcelona would lose again, this time at home to Celta Vigo as Los Blancos moved to the top of La Liga and Barça slipped down to 4th.
Everything seemed rosy with Real Madrid, who were supposedly set for a new golden era after playing second fiddle to the Catalans for much of the previous decade. Barcelona meanwhile had plenty of questions to answer.
Was new boss Luis Enrique, who had been somewhat unfairly dubbed ‘a poor mans Pep’ out of his depth in the Camp Nou hotseat? Would Luis Suarez, Neymar and Leo Messi be able to play together as a front three? How would they cope with a lengthy transfer ban and the slow decline and imminent retirement of the iconic figure of Xavi?
Looking back all three questions seem somewhat ridiculous but they were genuine concerns little over 12 months ago. Barça come into this weekend’s clash as the defending Spanish and European champions, while this time it is Real Madrid who are looking to rebuild after a trophyless campaign that led to a change in manager.
This is the first taste of El Clásico for Rafa Benitez and his first real opportunity to win hearts and minds among the ever-demanding supporters of Real Madrid. He could probably be forgiven for cursing the timing of this fixture mind. It comes immediately after his first defeat and first major setback as Real Madrid boss after he saw his side fall to a 3-2 loss at Sevilla last time out. They weren’t much better in the game prior to that either, when they won 1-0 but were out-passed and out-played for long spells in their Champions League home encounter with PSG.
The ominous sight out of Leo Messi training on Thursday is another boost to the visitors although given the Argentine has been out for almost 2 months and given that Barça have done pretty well in his absence, he may only start on the bench.
The same fate could await Karim Benzema, who has also trained but is not match fit after a lengthy injury lay-off. Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo are both healthy though and neither has been involved in international fixtures over the past fortnight so they should be raring to go on Saturday and are likely to start up front together.
At such an early stage in the season this game is no title decider but it certainly has the feel of one Benitez can’t really afford to lose. It would grant Barça a 6 point cushion at the top of the table and in a league were dropped points are a rarity for the top sides, that could take months to overhaul.
El Clásico is of course always an enormous occasion and with debate fiercely raging about Catalan independence once again, there is sure to be a little extra spice to this one. Politics aside though, this certainly feels like a bigger game for the hosts than the visitors, who despite some shaky defensive performances this season have coped well without the magic of Messi and seem certain to challenge strongly on all fronts again.
For Real Madrid and Rafa Benitez though this game is about more than the 3 points at stake. It’s a chance to halt the shift in power in the never-ending battle to be Spanish football’s top dog which has swept relentlessly East to Catalonia over the past 12 months.
For Benitez, it’s an opportunity to make a statement not only to the watching millions around the world but more importantly to his own fans, own president and perhaps even his own players, that he is the man that can rein in Barcelona’s dominance and end a barren run of just 1 Primera Division title in 7 seasons.