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The Diminished State of El Clásico

With Barcelona and Real Madrid losing their generational talents and enmeshed in financial woes, their meeting is no longer the world-stopping event it had come to be.

It turns out that sometimes there are consequences. Overspend recklessly, act with little sense of solidarity with the rest of the league, pursue a series of short-term populist measures and, in the end, it will all catch up with you. For a long time, El Clásico was the highlight of the domestic European calendar, the game the world stopped to watch. Sunday’s meeting at Camp Nou feels as though it has almost crept up, a game between seventh and second in the table, one that nobody can even begin to pretend is anything like the best football being played in Europe this season.

Both sides remain committed to the Super League, but that increasingly looks like a desperate gambit to stave off encroaching financial disaster. There will be very little super about Sunday’s game. Lionel Messi has gone, Cristiano Ronaldo has long since departed, and in the absence of the two superstars of the past 15 years, both clubs have struggled with the basics of team-building.

The good news for Barcelona is that it heads into Sunday’s Clásico having won back-to-back games for the first time this season, but it is still seventh in La Liga and there is little sense that those successive victories have done much to change the mood around the club. Last week’s 3–1 win over Valencia at least kept it within five points of league leader Real Sociedad (with a game in hand) and, perhaps more important, within two of Madrid, but such is the disillusionment that many of the 46,000 who turned out at the Camp Nou on Wednesday booed as the team saw out a 1–0 Champions League win over Dynamo Kiev.

Real Madrid faces Barcelona in El Clasico

Ansu Fati is back after a 10-month absence due to a knee injury and, after signing a six-year contract extension with a €1 billion buyout clause, should start. With him, Pedri and Gavi, plus the likes of Sergiño Dest, Riqui Puig and Yusuf Demir, there is perhaps some hope for the future. That is an extremely talented nucleus of young players. The danger is that the pressure is too great. Ideally, young players would be integrated slowly into a functioning unit, rather than being introduced en masse and left to sink or swim.

The pressure on Ronald Koeman at least has eased a little since he was publicly backed by club president Joan Laporta—although nobody really thinks that this is anything other than a marriage of convenience. Laporta was for a time fairly openly looking for replacements, before reluctantly concluding that given Barcelona’s financial position and the chaos around the club, there was no realistic candidate available. Koeman, unpopular as he is, does at least have three things going for him: He is of the Barça philosophy without being slavishly wedded to it; he has a track record of working successfully with young players; and he has an extremely thick skin.

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If the situation at Madrid seems relatively benign, that’s more an indication of how bad things are at Barcelona. The debt is still vast, the midfield is still ancient, and Florentino Pérez, the naked emperor, still believes in his Super League project and spent the summer role-playing being the president of a wealthy club, pretending Madrid could afford to buy Kylian Mbappé rather than addressing any of the actual issues.

Form this season has been patchy. While Karim Benzema, whose trial for alleged involvement in blackmailing his international teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape is concluding Friday (Benzema did not appear in person, and a verdict is expected in a month's time; prosecutors have asked that Benzema be fined the maximum amount of $87,000 and be given a 10-month suspended jail sentence), has been in the form of his life, and Vinícius Júnior is beginning to deliver on early promise, there have also been defeats to Sheriff Tiraspol and Espanyol.

A Madrid win, even at this stage, would knock Barcelona further out of the title race, perhaps even already to a prohibitive place, but the game feels more significant for what it is not. This is not the pinnacle of the world game anymore. La Liga's place in the upper echelon is dwindling. In 2020, it was the first year since 2007 that there were no Spanish sides in the semifinals of the Champions League, and while Madrid got there last season, it was well beaten by Chelsea.

The cycle has moved on. Pandemic economics and the ownership structures of Manchester City, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain perhaps would have counted against La Liga, anyway, but it’s hard to avoid the sense of a supremacy needlessly and wastefully squandered. Sunday will still be a Clásico, with all its attendant intrigue, but this is no longer the game that stops the world.

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