Real Madrid vs. Barcelona: Clasico promises goals aplenty
October 23, 2014 5:32:31 AM PDT
By Graham Hunter

It would be naive to deny that the rise of the Clasico to become the biggest and most important game in world football has nothing to do with vastly expanded television coverage in recent years or with the many thousands of online columns, magazine articles or newspaper coverage around the globe.

Clearly, that's a major factor, but the reason for that voracious global hunger, its single defining quality is ... quality.

All of Spain's football communities, and many of the world's Clasico outposts, are divided by the Real Madrid-Barcelona rivalry. But far from everyone watches, reads or listens because they have a dog in the fight. No, this meeting is magnetic because the thrill is there.

Some define the quality of a contest by the strategy: the technique, the intelligence, the resilience, the tactical battle. But nobody, simply nobody, can resist the allure of the ball hitting the net. Barcelona's former manager, Pep Guardiola, used to call it "the most difficult and the most beautiful" part of the game, but the goals have turned this game into a global phenomenon.

In the past 10 years there have been 33 Clasicos -- in La Liga, La Copa, the Supercopa and the Champions League at the Santiago Bernabeu, the Camp Nou and La Mestalla -- and those cultural collisions have gifted us 112 goals, which works out to almost 3.5 goals per game.

The likelihood of Saturday's clash starting with Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and James Rodriguez versus Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar probably takes this Clasico ahead of any other ever in ante-post goal power. No disrespect to Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo Di Stefano, Laszlo Kubala, Ronaldo (for either side), Hugo Sanchez, Samuel Eto'o, Ronaldinho, Quini, Emilio Butragueno or Romario.

Last season, Ronaldo, Benzema, Rodriguez, Messi, Suarez and Neymar scored 171 club goals among them. Add international goals and the figure soars well over 200. In one season. No combined strike forces have ever approached a Clasico with that incredible stat as a calling card.

Gareth Bale is out, of course, with a muscle strain, but if anything else robs the fans of seeing these magnificent six starting the match for the first time, then the disappointed groan from neutrals around the world will be at a higher decibel level than that of the Madrid or Barcelona aficionados.

Three of them (Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar) were in the Ballon d'Or top five in January. With Bale and Suarez, five of them in the top 19. Widen the criteria beyond attackers to include midfielders Andres Iniesta and Xavi, and Saturday's game should feature seven of the top 19 players in the world as of January.

So, what's the tale of the tape?

FC Barcelona: Messi, Suarez, Neymar

Madrid are at home, but let's first start with the joker in the pack: the introduction of Suarez. Whether he starts or merely enters the fray as a substitute, this will mark a new era for the Blaugrana.

Setting aside any objections about his personality and behavior, Suarez should be the absolute perfect signing for this version of Barcelona. His goal tally speaks for itself, and there are other elements which, perhaps less glaringly, should mean he fits hand in glove with those around him.

This Barcelona era (let's say since 2003) has been a major success in terms of trophies, brand of football, world appeal, goals, club revenue and Clasico victories. Of the past 17 Clasicos at the Bernabeu, Madrid have lost nine and drawn three.

Suarez will press

One of the least discussed and least appreciated elements of that decade of achievement has been the pressing. When the Blaugrana press properly, they are hard to play football against, they win the ball back in dangerous areas and force opposition into errors. But it's a hard slog.

One of the best at pressing, if not the best, was Eto'o. One of the worst is Neymar. Messi? He comes and goes. Thus, what's going to be essential about Suarez, particularly once he's reached match sharpness and stamina after returning from his long ban on Saturday is that he snaps, harries, presses, worries and distracts opposition players who want more than a second and a half on the ball.

In this match it's fair to expect a bit of that from him, but is it enough to make a difference?

Another aspect of Barcelona's play is that they put the ball into the box 45 times against Eibar at the weekend. It's a pattern. Teams defend in such banked numbers against them now that breakaway goals are rare, the centre of the pitch is like fitting 15 people into a phone box and rivals offer width, banking on the fact that Dani Alves, in particular, won't be able to find a teammate.

Partly, that's not the Brazilian's fault. Nobody has given Messi more assists in his club career; Alves has already created glorious goals from wide crosses these last weeks, as Neymar against Eibar and Messi against Granada can attest. But Barcelona aren't particularly good in the air.

Suarez is. He has timing, is adept at producing a leap that belies his height and "shows" brilliantly, thus telling crossers where he wants the ball.



Messi moving back will free up space

In recent months, Messi has moved back to the position he played two phases of his career ago -- not the false nine whom Guardiola wanted to put "nearer to the opposition goal," nor the winger as used by previous manager Frank Rijkaard. "Luis Enrique has given me total liberty," is how the Barca No. 10 phrases it.

He uses it to play like he did in most of his Juvenil and short Barca B career. Like a No. 10: in the space between the midfield and attack, free to pass into channels, freer to run at players if he chooses but currently missing someone to tie up the centrally placed defensive players in front of the opposition goal. Now, he has that man in Suarez.

Clearly, there will be positional fluidity between the three men. Neymar's ninth goal in nine games came on the volley from the centre-forward position at the weekend. Suarez has already admitted, "I'll play wherever I'm told to or where I'm needed, just so long as I play." But principally, the Uruguayan will be asked to operate higher and more centrally than the other two, testing rivals who've had time to double, treble or even quadruple their blocking power on Messi.

Watch for two things: Messi giving Suarez a whole batch of assists as the weeks pass, and Suarez creating space for him. A player such as Messi will take full advantage of that cavernous space, and the Argentinian should start slaloming into the box and scoring down the middle more regularly than for a couple of seasons.

Suarez will help goals from outside the box. When teams put numbers behind the ball against Barcelona, the Catalans' football becomes repetitive as they try to find the keys to the bus, fill it up with petrol and drive it out of the way. One of the things they've lacked is the attitude/nerve/habit/ability to score goals from outside the box. But it's an absolute forte of the Uruguayan's.

As such, will he add not only that extra firepower to Barcelona's armory, but teams will have to break the rigid order of what Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho calls a "low block" to prevent him shooting from outside the box. That will leave space for combination passes around the penalty area. Plus, Suarez's shots will create rebounds for Messi and Neymar to snaffle.

Messi and Neymar's connection

Less new, but potentially just as important, is the "feeling" that has emerged between Neymar and Messi. Without a hint of castigation, Messi's connection with previous teammates up top -- Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa, Cristian Tello and Alexis Sanchez -- wasn't the same.

They did not have the same telepathy on the pitch, nor the same respect and closeness off the pitch. On Tuesday, Messi told me it was true that he was particularly enjoying playing with Neymar and that they "looked for one another" with the ball.

Neymar is now tougher, more muscular and working noticeably harder. But even for a kid who's scored 200 professional goals at the age of only 22, he's nowhere near the finished article yet. His pressing, his focus, how clinical his use of the ball is, how he measures the efficacy of dribbling versus passing -- all these have a way to travel. That he now also has Suarez to learn from is no bad thing, for Barcelona at least.



Real Madrid: Rodriguez, Benzema, Ronaldo

Having said all that, there is one, just one, king bee as we approach this match. Whatever previous achievements by his competitors suggest, Cristiano Ronaldo is the man right now. The most prolific, the most powerful, the most efficient, the most hungry and the most inspirational footballer on the planet.

To my way of thinking, the Madrid man, en route potentially to being the greatest player in the club's history, has a lesson for Neymar. Real's right-back, Alvaro Arbeloa, puts it best: "What makes Cris so amazing is that he has bags of natural talent and is at the right club to develop that talent ... but he is also a total perfectionist. For him, it's all about winning, improving his performance and moving forward, every single day, without exception. I often wonder what Ronaldo and Ronaldinho -- players who were already the best in the world -- could have achieved if they had had Cristiano's discipline. I suppose they lacked some defining feature that other people are born with. In the end, it all comes down to an individual's character. But can you imagine what they could have done? It almost makes me angry thinking about it."

Nobody would accuse Neymar of wasting much of his fledgling career -- nor is there a hint of anything other than constructive criticism -- but in Cristiano, the Brazilian should see the right example to follow, rather than the two Ronnies.

Better still, I believe it has been the knowledge he has less of a responsibility to win games on his own, which has liberated Ronaldo slightly and led him to service up more assists of his own.

Bale has made Ronaldo better

Though Bale won't play this weekend, his arrival last season -- potentially threatening harmony because of Ronaldo's wish to be regarded as Madrid's most expensive purchase -- has been great for the Portuguese.

He and Bale have their version of the Messi-Neymar partnership, with the Welshman finely tuned into precisely where Ronaldo wants or needs the ball delivered to him. Bale scores, and the trajectory of his goal production is rising with each year as his confidence and authority increase, but his supply to Ronaldo is helping CR7 in his determined drive to remain the world's No. 1.

Increasingly less self-centered with each passing season, Ronaldo now quite happily provides goal assists for Benzema and Bale even while breaking scoring record after scoring record.

If, and I think it's true, there was once a significant quality gap between Messi and Ronaldo in terms of the goal-assist/team value ratio, that gap has either narrowed or completely disappeared.

Benzema has benefitted from a less selfish Ronaldo

If anything, Benzema's work is still more laudable. It's genuinely hard to understand that only a few weeks ago the (allegedly) sage columnists and headline writers in the Madrid media were tearing into the Frenchman. The list was predictable, albeit wrong. He didn't score sufficiently, he isn't "top, top" level and he's in the team because Ronaldo is his patron.

Total rubbish. The two goals he scored at Anfield on Wednesday mean he's hit 40 in that elite competition in only 67 games. That's already an impressive strike rate, but the reliable @2010MisterChip produced the stat that to score 40 UCL goals took Didier Drogba 79 matches, Cristiano Ronaldo 82, Alex Del Piero 83 and Zlatan 101.

Fifteen games quicker to 40 Champions goals than the teammate to whom he so often subjugates himself. What would Benzema's total be if he had a, well, Benzema playing for him? Just a thought. (And 34 games quicker to 40 goals than the "mighty" Zlatan ... how about that?)

The Frenchman's six goals in 18 Clasicos perhaps isn't pure rock 'n' roll as a record, but it isn't bad. It's worth noting that he hit two in the 4-3 defeat last March, hit the bar with a thunderous shot in the 2-1 defeat to Tata Martino's side and gave the assist for Angel Di Maria's opening in the Copa del Rey final win against the Catalans. Form. Rising Clasico form.



James is impressing in Madrid

Without Bale, it might be a moot point whether Madrid look slightly more like 4-4-2 both with and without the ball on Saturday. A moot point as to whether James and Isco play as midfielders or alternate as the third striker. But one thing is certain: the list of things that were said about James before describing his talent during the earliest part of the season, including his price tag and unprolific season at Monaco, are now being superseded by one admission: "The boy can play."

Though there are currently no indications this is a 30-goal-per-season man in the making, almost everything about him has gone up several gears in recent weeks -- his goal threat, assists, stamina, defensive work and confidence.

Just as Suarez's arrival might tie up defenders and benefit Messi, it's entirely feasible James increasingly begins to take some of the assist/link-up work off Benzema, who'll then be free to play with more selfishness, or at least with blinkers on.

Potentially his goal rate, already on the rise in direct correlation with that of James' form, will start to surge on as his 27th birthday approaches. This will be the first Clasico since the best of them all, Madrid's legendary Alfredo Di Stefano, died. He played his last match against Barcelona in December 1963 yet it took until March for anyone -- Messi, of course -- to overtake his tally of 18 goals in the fixture.

Di Stefano is credited as having once said "a game without goals is like an afternoon without sunshine." Look to the skies and say a quiet final adios to Don Alfredo this weekend. Then, look to the pitch and expect what he considered football's equivalent of sunshine: lovely goals.


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