Let’s get one thing straight: Lionel Messi is statistically better than Cristiano Ronaldo in El Clásico matches.
Messi has scored more goals (26), has more assists (14) and has been on the winning side more often (17). In fact, only on three occasions, when Messi has scored against Real Madrid, did Barcelona lose the match – and only once in the league.
But today marks 10 years, 10 months and five days since Spanish football’s most highly anticipated derby will not feature the duo – dubbed the two greatest footballers on the planet right now.
Messi has a broken arm and Ronaldo has left Real, who travel this time to Catalonia, in northeastern Spain, for the first clash of the 2018/19 season.
On that Sunday in late December 2007, a Júlio Baptista goal for Real Madrid separated the teams at Camp Nou.
Then, a few months later, Frank Rijkaard’s team – who were forced to give their bitter rivals a guard of honour before the match – was humiliated by Bernd Schuster’s league champions 4-1 as they claimed both La Liga El Clásico's.
At the end of that season, the Blaugrana underwent a cultural change by bringing in Pep Guardiola, who led the Catalan side to arguably their most successful period.
Under Guardiola’s tutelage of Barcelona, Los Blancos could only manage two wins out of a possible 15, and also succumbed to five consecutive losses in Guardiola’s first five El Clásico as head coach.
So what, you might ask? That’s all history and none of those mentioned above will take part in this evening’s clash.
And you will be absolutely correct.
But consider their legacies, which are still being played out, and their history, which is still remembered – and their eyes, still fixed on the El Clásico.
In his book The Barcelona Way, Damian Hughes mentions an incident where Guardiola finally responded to José Mourinho’s taunting before their sides clashed in their Champions League semifinal El Clásico first leg.
Mourinho had said that “a new era has begun”, and then proceeded to mock Guardiola. Guardiola responded in the Santiago Bernabeu’s press room with the words:
Then he responded to every jeer, slur and critique that Mourinho had hurled at him the day before.
Hughes mentions that, among the 546 press conferences that Guardiola claimed to have held, this one stood out for almost every Barcelona player because it marked what he calls “the arc of change” – a moment so significant in its change of mind-set that it leads to unbridled success. That season, Barcelona beat Madrid and went on to claim the league and the Champions League. Fast-forward to today and, on the one hand, you have a Real Madrid coach in Julen Lopetegui fighting tooth and nail for a job that cost him a World Cup, while, on the other, Barcelona’s coach has the tough task of replacing the best El Clásico player while trying to establish dominance in a league that should be theirs to lose.
The Barcelona defender-cum-winger has an ongoing bromance with Lionel Messi, with the latter saying they have a “special connection”.
In previous El Clásico matches, he has had two assists and one goal, while contributing two goals and five assists this season.
Since becoming captain, Ramos has received only four yellow cards and two red cards in El Clásico games.
His goal record, however, was better when he was not wearing the armband. Considering his more attack-focused approach this season, he will most likely to try to dig Madrid out of a hole.
Madrid’s new No 7 has seen just seven minutes of El Clásico so far. Born in the Catalan town of Premia de Mar, just 30km from Camp Nou, this would be the perfect opportunity for him to announce himself.
If the 20-year-old midfielder gets an El Clásico berth, the Brazilian will look to continue his impressive form at Barcelona. He played 466 minutes off the bench this season and grabbed an assist on day one of the league. Valverde could certainly use him as a supersub should the need arise.
Lopetegui has to find the words to inspire a team who knows what it means to be at the top of the world; to drive a cultural shift away from the cup trophies to the league championship. In their past four league games, Madrid have won only one point, while suffering the record for the club’s longest run without a goal.
Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde has overcome the first hurdle by reclaiming the top spot in the league and by fielding a competitive side without Messi. But if he wants the same success as Guardiola, he will have to find the words to elicit a revolution of dominance that will be more than just about football.
Valverde and Lopetegui have played for Barcelona and both understand that, when one travels to Catalonia, and especially if the team is Real Madrid, the stakes are not just about football – more so, considering that today is 366 days since the Parliament of Catalonia passed the declaration of independence from Spain.
Tonight’s clash is important not just for the points that are up for grabs, but also for the tone this match will set for the rest of the season.