Spanish showdown – el clasico preview

Madrid haven’t exactly started the defence of their La Liga trophy in the most impressive manner, losing two of their opening six fixtures and finding themselves eight points behind their rivals. The poor start to the domestic season comes down to a number of factors. The most recent rumours regarding Madrid talisman Cristiano Ronaldo’s unhappiness (the poor man, it must be so tough being one of the richest, most talented sportsmen on the planet. What a downer), coupled with an apparent split in the dressing room haven’t made things any easier for the club. Or perhaps it can be attributed to a sense of complacency by Jose Mourinho after leading his side to victory and out of the shadows of Pep Guardiola.

While Real have struggled in the early exchanges, Barcelona have been virtually unstoppable. The Catalan side has made a smooth transition from the epic Guardiola era to the not-so-epic but still pretty damn effective Tito Vilanova era, starting with a perfect record of six wins from six. When taking over the reins as manager, Vilanova’s duty was simple; he was essentially given the keys to a Ferrari and told not to crash it. Deep metaphors aside, Vilanova has done a magnificent job sticking to the same trusted strategy while making minor tweaks of his own.

Without a doubt, what makes this fixture so enthralling for neutral fans is the showdown between two of the sports all-time greats. The Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo debate has really heated up over the last three seasons, with the latter deciding to leave his legacy in Old Trafford and take his talents to the Bernabeau. It seems as though every week fans and pundits alike have a new favourite between the two, until one inevitably outscores the other. What fans should appreciate is the fact that they are being treated to perhaps the greatest individual play since the days of Pele and Maradona, if not better. Just let me throw these numbers at you: 73 – the number of goals scored by Messi in all competitions last season, breaking the previous record of 67 held by Gerd Muller in 1972/73. 158 – The number of goals Ronaldo has scored in 154 games with Madrid. Nothing more needs to be said.

Despite their early domestic struggles, Real have started to get back on the right track. Their recent success in the Champions League, particularly their midweek 4-1 drubbing of Dutch champions Ajax, indicates that they are regaining their form from the tail end of last season. Meanwhile, Barcelona’s defence is due to come under huge pressure on Sunday, with captain Carles Puyol set to be out for up to eight weeks after suffering a gruesome dislocated shoulder injury in mid-week. Vilanova may be forced into starting a make-do partnership of Alex Song and Javier Mascherano in the centre of defence, as Pique too finds himself unfit to play. This is certain to leave Barca vulnerable to the fast tempo counter-attacking style of Madrid.

As we’ve seen before, both sides will have to rely heavily on their fantastic midfield play to cover up their vulnerability in defence. Croatian playmaker Luka Modric has played somewhat of a cameo role thus far for Madrid since moving from Tottenham in the summer for €42 million. However, this kind of game seems tailor-made for Modric to pull the strings in midfield and help counter the threat of Barca’s trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas.

There is no doubting that El Classico is one of the most entertaining fixtures there is on the sporting calendar. It offers true football fans the opportunity to revel in the glory of the beautiful game. True it has also garnered the unfortunate reputation as a diver’s paradise (*cough, Sergio Busquets), but it never fails to disappoint.

Prediction:Barcelona 2-2 Real Madrid.

I know I’m sitting on the fence with this, but as always I just can’t see much of a difference between these two sides. Had Puyol and Pique been fit, I perhaps would have gone with Barca to edge it, but that’s just not the case. Both teams are pretty evenly matched in midfield, and up front too, so I’m going with a high scoring draw.