The lead up to tomorrow’s late in the season La Liga Clasico has been quite unique with minds on both sides not quite as focused as usual in the days before the world’s biggest domestic club game.
Tuesday saw Real Madrid qualify for a third consecutive Champions League final in extra dramatic fashion, while on Thursday Barcelona’s squad and directors shared a meal to celebrate their already achieved La Liga and Copa del Rey double success.
Barca’s last remaining target for 2017/18 is now to become the first ever team to complete a 38-game Spanish season unbeaten — with just two further games to play after this tie to go down into history as ‘Els Invencibles’.
Ernesto Valverde’s men have been far superior to Madrid in domestic action, easing to the La Liga title with four games left to play, and winning a Copa competition in which Madrid were embarrassed during the early rounds by humble neighbours, Leganes.
However, Barca were themselves shocked in the Champions League quarter-finals by Roma while Zinedine Zidane’s side are now into May 26’s final against Liverpool in Kiev, with Bernabeu fans and pundits now claiming European success outshines anything their rivals have achieved this term.
Even before Tuesday’s second leg against Bayern Munich, Madrid captain Sergio Ramos was mischievously asked whether a third consecutive Champions League victory or a domestic double was a more worthy achievement.
“It depends for who,” Ramos said, with a typical cheeky smile. “I know where your question is coming from — Barca have won the double. It is a great year for them, winning the Copa has its merits, La Liga a bit more, and winning the Champions League could be the same as both, and maybe a little more, depending on for who. But they have had a great season, and we will too if we can win the (Champions League) final.”
The relative merits of week by week consistency in La Liga versus coasting for months then peaking for big games in Europe was also the context for Valverde’s quotes after Lionel Messi’s hat-trick in Sunday’s 4-2 win at Deportivo La Coruna confirmed Barca’s seventh Primera Division trophy in the last 10 years.
“For me, La Liga is the most difficult competition to win,” Valverde said. “In the Copa and in the Champions League, one bad day can knock you out. But the league is a constant over many months and you need to have resolve and determination.”
Zidane has said something similar, acknowledging his team paid for a lack of focus earlier in the season, when an inconsistent start to the campaign included a 3-0 reverse in the season’s first Clasico at the Bernabeu in December.
The Frenchman has been clear however that his side have no intention of giving the new champions a ‘pasillo’ guard of honour onto the pitch this weekend, with the controversy inevitably getting mixed up in the ongoing debate around Catalan independence.
There are many other subplots around. This Clasico is the last for departing Barcelona captain Andres Iniesta, whose next big local derby game could be for Chongqing Dangdai Lifan against Guizhou Hengfeng, if a proposed move to the Chinese Super League goes through.
Madrid’s out of favour galactico Gareth Bale may be playing in the fixture for a final time too, given how the Welshman has fallen down the Bernabeu pecking order. Improving on a Clasico record of just one goal in nine games would be a useful reminder of his value.
It is also likely to be the final Clasico shown on Sky Sports, after the Irish and UK La Liga rights for the next three seasons were surprisingly won by market newcomers Eleven Sports this week.
Fans in Ireland could well be getting their weekly fix of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo via online streaming from next August. Ronaldo’s last visit to the Camp Nou saw him sent off in August’s Supercopa, then banned after pushing the referee.
The subsequent five-game suspension was a big factor as Barca quickly built a huge lead in the table by September, and Messi moved well clear in the ‘Pichichi’ top scorers race.
Outside a possible meeting at this summer’s World Cup, Sunday could be the superstars’ last personal head to head before 2018 Ballon D’Or voting begins.
So the La Liga title may be already won, but tomorrow’s ‘Decaf Clasico’ should still have plenty of bite.
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