Johannesburg - The cliché around the El Clasico is always the battle between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. With good reason, too. They are the two best players on the planet who play for the two most successful clubs on the globe in one of the best leagues in the world.
They also happen to be in the race to be inducted into the tribe of Goats – the elite club of sports heroes considered the “greatest of all time” in their respective codes.
When Real Madrid and Barcelona meet for the fourth El Clásico of 2017 on Saturday (the first was towards the end of last season and the other two were cup clashes) at the Santiago Bernabéu, the race will be at heightened level. After Ronaldo won his fifth Ballon d’Or last week and equalled Messi’s tally, the Goat debate went into overdrive.
This is a highly partisan and emotional debate in which even the most sensible and knowledgeable experts refuse to be guided by logic. Participants dig into the minutest of records and statistics to justify why they believe one is better than the other.
But there are other issues that will be top of mind on Saturday night, but let’s start with the obvious.
The 2016/17 season belonged to Ronaldo. Not only was he central to Madrid’s La Liga triumph, he was also instrumental in securing them the Supercopa de Espana – the grand prize that pits the Spanish league holders against the Copa del Rey champions. Although he scored only one of the goals in the 5-1 drubbing of their rivals in the two-legged final, he was at the heart of all the action.
Ronaldo had gone into that season having inspired Portugal’s historic Euro 2016 coup. He capped his season by spearheading Madrid’s march to its 12th Champions League trophy.
This season has been a huge contrast. In all competitions, Messi is streaking ahead in the goal and assist count, with 17 and five to Ronaldo’s 11 and two. Messi’s form has been consistently high from the word go, while Ronaldo struggled to get off the starting blocks. Ronaldo has finally clicked into gear and he is again playing like one of Satan’s soldiers.
He knows Messi had a head start this season, but the last thing the Portuguese captain will want is to have the younger Messi, who has more playing years than him, go and pip him to the sixth Ballon d’Or. Firing Ronaldo up on Saturday will be the earworm of Abu Dhabi fans chanting “Messi! Messi! Messi” during the World Club semifinal clash against Al Jazira on Wednesday.
Clash of legends
In keeping with its tradition of getting coaches with a Barcelona history who are steeped in its culture, the club appointed Ernesto Valverde at the beginning of this season. He stepped into the shoes of fellow club legend Luis Enrique, who had bagged a double and a treble in successive seasons and managed to nail nine of a possible 13 trophies he could have won in his three years at the helm. He has a lot to live up to as he will inevitably be compared to Enrique and the ever successful Pep Guardiola.
The former Spain striker and veteran coach, who has taken average teams to great heights, certainly deserved to coach one of the big guns. And he has not disappointed. Barcelona are top of La Liga with 12 wins, three draws and no losses. They are five points clear of second-placed Valencia and nine clear of fifth-placed Madrid. His charges have scored 38 goals and only conceded seven.
In Madrid, the situation is sombre. Having proved that he was not just a spiritual appointment with seven titles – including two Champions League trophies – in his first two years in top tier management, Zinedine Zidane’s star is not shining so brightly this season. Madrid are four places behind their archrivals and have lost to mules and drawn with donkeys. They finished second in their Champions League group, an extremely rare occurrence for the team that regards this competition as its own.
The two men were French and Spanish national team icons in their playing days. The record says Zidane 5-Valverde 0, but now that they have equal firepower and Valverde has settled in, it’ll be a different ballgame altogether.
No more MSN, but will there be a BBC?
El Clasico fans – Barcelona fans, the neutrals and a smattering of Madridistas – will miss the presence of Neymar on the field. He was a beauty to watch when in combination with Messi and Luis Suárez in the famous MSN attacking trio. Although Valverde has plugged the gap Neymar left, the El Clasico meal just won’t taste the same without the charismatic Brazilian. But life moves on. There’ll be lots of other things to savour.
On the opposite side, Zidane will be hoping that injury-prone Gareth Bale will be fit to play the full 90 minutes alongside Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, and thus complete his BBC band. When not nursing one or other injury, the Welshman is an artist on the wing, mixing skill and Olympic speed to rip defences apart.
Combined with Benzema’s strength and Ronaldo’s assassin-level accuracy, the BBC is one of the deadliest strike forces the world of soccer has seen. But Bale’s injuries have meant that the trio often plays without one instrumentalist lately.
Bale recently returned to action after yet another layoff. This week, he found the net against Al Jazira, raising Zidane’s hopes.
“I want to see Gareth, Cristiano and Karim. It has been a long time since I have seen them together,” Zidane enthused before Bale’s return.
This rivalry has always been laced with politics. Madrid is considered the team of the Spanish establishment, and has boasted presidents and royalty as part of its fan base. So when teams from the autonomous regions play against Los Blancos, they see it as part of a long battle for independence from Spain.
This is particularly so with Barcelona, which is virtually the “national side” of jingoist Catalans. Barcelona’s boardroom leaders and coaches, including Guardiola, have not been shy to voice their support for Catalonia’s independence.
“FC Barcelona, in remaining faithful to its historic commitment to the defence of the nation, to democracy to freedom of speech and to self-determination, condemns any act that may impede the free exercise of these rights,” the club said during recent pro-independence protests.
This clash takes place in a charged atmosphere. Some Catalan leaders are facing treason charges and others have fled into exile as a result of their Rhodesian-style attempts at forcing secession in October. The militant mood in Barcelona, and particularly Camp Nou, is one that the players – particularly those of Catalonian descent – will take to the capital.
In the capital, there is anger at the visitors’ support for the Rhodesian antics of the Catalan leaders. This anger will be felt on the stands and on the field.
What the future will bring
Predicting an El Clasico result is as stupid as trying to predict the next moronic statement that will come from the mouths of Jacob Zuma, Bathabile Dlamini and Oros.
But one thing you can safely predict is that there will be more goals and more excitement than in the last Soweto Derby.