- For the first time since 2007, El Clasico will feature neither Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo. Instead, it's a Barcelona side looking to cope without its maestro and a Real Madrid side simply looking to find its way.
El Clasico may remain the biggest league game of the global calendar, but Sunday’s iteration will be defined by two players who are not there and one manager who may not be there much longer. For nine years, Barcelona against Real Madrid has felt like Lionel Messi against Cristiano Ronaldo, plus their supporting casts, but with the former suffering a broken arm and the latter sold to Juventus, the dominant narrative this time around will involve the continued employment at the Bernabeu of Julen Lopetegui.
At the moment, every game for Lopetegui feels like a bonus. Had there been an obvious candidate available, he probably would have gone by now, and it may be that he clings on just as long as it takes for Antonio Conte to resolve his severance from Chelsea. Real Madrid’s recent form has been dismal, with four defeats and a draw in five games before Tuesday’s unconvincing 2-1 victory in the Champions League against Viktoria Plzen.
Increasingly, it’s becoming apparent that Ronaldo’s goals covered a multitude of problems at Madrid. Karim Benzema, although he scored on Tuesday, is not prolific, while Gareth Bale, who in terms of style and transfer fee was the nearest player in the squad to Ronaldo, has struggled all season–as he has for much of his career–with injuries. Defensive laxity and an inability to control games had long been a problem.
There has long been a curious issue with application and concentration, particularly early in the season before the glamorous later rounds of the Champions League, and without Ronaldo’s endless lust for goals, that has been exposed. In that regard, the messages of support for Lopetegui from senior players may do him little good in the eyes of the president Florentino Perez, who is known to favor a hard-man coach to refocus minds.
The result is that Madrid sits seventh in the table with just 14 points from nine games. It is the club’s good fortune that this season no side has started especially well, and so the gap to league-leading Barcelona is only four points. In past seasons, after a start like that, Madrid would already have been out of title contention. As it is, while the sense since the second round of the Champions League group fixtures has been of sides heading in opposite directions, a win on Sunday would leave Real just a point off the pace.
The result is that there is an old-fashioned feel about the build-up. For once, Barcelona and Real Madrid are not obviously the two best sides in Spain. Not since December 2007 and the dog days of Frank Rijkaard’s tenure as Barcelona manager has there been a Clasico featuring neither Messi nor Ronaldo.
Just as Ronaldo masked various deficiencies at Madrid, so there is a sense that Messi has been doing the same at Barcelona. Last Saturday’s game against Sevilla was a case in point. Messi was brilliant as Barça swept into a 2-0 lead early on, but after he was forced off with a broken arm midway through the first half, the dynamic of the game changed. Until halftime, the game felt almost as though it had been suspended, as though concerns about Messi outweighed all else. Then in the second half a game broke out, Sevilla gave as good as it got, and Barcelona ended up winning 4-2. Without Messi, Barça is just another very good side.
There’s no doubt, though, that Barça, despite playing much tougher opposition, was far more impressive in the Champions League this week than Madrid, beating Inter Milan 2-0. Rafinha came in for Messi and linked well with Luis Suarez to score the first goal. That’s not particularly good news for Ousmane Dembele, if, as would seem likely, Philippe Coutinho is used on the left side of the forward line rather than in midfield. That then allows Barcelona to field Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and either Arthur or Arturo Vidal in the middle, giving Ernesto Valverde's side an energy and a physicality that should prevent Madrid being able to control possession.
That that’s even a consideration, though, shows how things have changed at Barcelona. It’s not so long ago that it would have just dominated possession by virtue of being better at pass-and-move football than everybody else on the planet. Madrid, presumably, will match shape for shape, with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric in front of Casemiro in midfield and a front three of Bale, Benzema and Marco Asensio.
Personnel, though, feels like only part of the issue. The most important thing at Madrid right now is to arrest the sense of drift.