To consider either of Real Madrid and Barcelona outside of the top 5 clubs in Europe seems mad but is that the case? Neither club reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2019/20. The last time both clubs were eliminated before the final four was in the 2006/07 season.
Certainly a compliment to the dominance both clubs have had over Europe over the last decade. Yet, the first ‘El Classico’ of the season converges two sides in transition. Barcelona more so than that of Los Blancos.
The Blaugrana have spent huge amounts of money on players and continued to decline. The likes of Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho couldn’t make up for the shock departure of Neymar to PSG.
The Brazilian reached the Champions League final against Bayern Munich but was comfortably beaten by the German champions. Lionel Messi’s situation at the club is reaching mythical levels of awkwardness. A clear attempt to escape the Nou Camp was made in the previous window with La Liga needing to step in and effectively sentence the Argentine to his final year at the club.
The departure of Luis Suarez angered Messi and his public comments spared no detail as to his discontent. Yet there have been positive moves.
Ronald Koeman’s appointment as coach brought with it confidence. Koeman had the year couple years reviving the Dutch national side. The ‘Oranje’ connection between the nation and Barca is refreshingly nostalgic.
Whilst the style of play under Koeman is unlikely to hark back to the principles of Johan Cruyff in a transparent and organic fashion, Barcelona have got a coach with a track record of turning difficult situations around.
Youth is back at Barca. Not only has the meteoric rise of La Masia graduate Ansu Fati been spectacular but the club has also invested. Sergino Dest, Trincao and Pedri’s arrival this summer displays a shift in the transfer policy. Restricted due to the pandemic and a financial crisis at the club, it may come as a benefit to shackle the recruitment team.
The start to the season has not been easy. 2 wins, 1 draw and a loss to Getafe are evidence of that. But the flashes of Fati and the reintegration of Coutinho display hope for the Barca faithful.
Madrid have been without the talismanic figure of Cristiano Ronaldo for 2 years now and have entered into their third season without the Portuguese.
In the league, Zinedine Zidane has been able to recapture the form of Karim Benzema. Formerly an enabler of Ronaldo, the exiled former French international has become a leader of the club. Scoring 27 goals in 48 appearances last season whilst keeping his creative streak up with 11 assists. Benzema dragged Real to the Primera Division title and was brilliant.
The ‘Galactico’ era has effectively finished with huge names replaced by targeted investment. Younger talents like Marco Asensio, Federico Valverde, Dani Ceballos and Alvaro Odriozola were purchased. Some flourished like the Majorcan-born Asensio and others have needed to seek different paths like Ceballos.
Big fees continue, but are spent with the future in mind. Whilst Barcelona spent wildly on players with minimal sell-on value like Griezmann, Miralem Pjanic and Paulinho, Los Blancos thought ahead. Luka Jovic, Eder Militao, Rodrygo, Vinicius Junior and Ferland Mendy came through the pearly white gates.
Zidane, a former Real Castilla coach, has been able to bring out the best in some. The pressure on Vinicius and Rodrygo was massive after huge fees paid to Brazil. But the pair have not buckled and are beginning to click, Vinicius especially is becoming someone Zidane can lean and rely on.
Whilst the Bernabeu is under renovation, Los Blancos have been playing at their Alfredo Di Stafano stadium. Winning 3, drawing 1 and losing to Cadiz their start is similar to that of their Classico counterparts.
A loss for either side would mean back-to-back league defeats and inevitable pressure on their coaches. Both clubs had contrasting European games with Barcelona demolishing Ferencvaros 5-1 and Real Madrid being beaten by a heavily weakened Shakhtar Donetsk 3-2 in the Spanish capital.
The big team news is that Sergio Ramos is reportedly fit and ready after missing the midweek clash. Right-back is an issue with Dani Carvajal and Alvaro Odriozola unfit. Nacho Fernandez or Ferland Mendy could deputise. Eden Hazard is still out having not played at all this season.
For Barca, the most notable absences are Marc-Andre Ter Stegen and Jodri Alba. Samuel Umtiti is also out but would have been an unlikely starter. Neto will deputise in goal with Sergino Dest once again coming in at left-back.
Barcelona will be going in as favourites but this is one of the most unpredictable ‘El Classico’ clashes for a long time. Expect fireworks.