Few footballing rivalries are able to capture the imagination of the wider world quite as much as that of Real Madrid and Barcelona. Meetings between these two star-studded outfits make for compulsory viewing, even if the games themselves do not always live up to the pre-match billing.
Their next coming-together, which takes place at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday night, promises to be quite a spectacle however. Aside from the incentive of getting one over their biggest rivals, both sides know that the three points at stake are of vital importance in their private battle for the Spanish league title. Tied on 77 points with the Catalans, the hosts go into the game as leaders on goal difference. And with only seven games remaining after this one, a three-point advantage at this late stage could well prove decisive.
Saturday’s duel also has a number of interesting sub-plots, not least the continuing battle for the coveted title of pichichi (top scorer) between current leader Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain. And, as FIFA.com explains, the form of the many players on both sides who will be gracing the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ will also be closely assessed by a select band of national coaches.
Dry run for La Roja
Spain boss Vicente del Bosque will need to keep his wits about him as he attempts to monitor the ten players who habitually form part of his line-ups, not to mention four others who could yet squeeze into his 23-man squad for the world finals. Two of the most eagerly anticipated match-ups pit goalkeepers Iker Casillas and Victor Valdes against each other and midfield schemer Xavi against Xabi Alonso.
Known for their attacking prowess, Barça can also pride themselves on having the tightest defence in La Liga, having shipped only 19 goals in 30 games. One of the biggest reasons for that impressive record is the form of Valdes, who is on course for his third Zamora trophy, awarded to the goalkeeper conceding the fewest goals during the league season. Surprisingly, however, the Barcelona custodian has never been called up for international duty, with Casillas maintaining an iron grip on the No1 jersey.
“We’ve never had any reason to discard Casillas and (Pepe) Reina,” Del Bosque said recently, before giving the Barça shot-stopper a glimmer of hope. “Valdes is in with a chance of going to the World Cup as the third-choice keeper.”
Saturday’s clásico will also give the Spain coach an excellent opportunity to appraise his options in defence. Lining up for Barça will be their first-choice centre-half pairing of Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, while Raul Albiol will be slotting into central defence for Los Merengues, alongside full-backs Sergio Ramos and Alvaro Arbeloa.
Setting the tempo on both sides will be two mainstays of the national side in Xavi and Xabi Alonso. While the Barcelona linchpin is the more creative and attack-minded of the two and a deadly threat at set-pieces, his Blanco counterpart is a formidable defensive bulwark and distributor of the ball, with the ability to score spectacular goals from distance.
Argentina’s goal kings
It is no surprise that Saturday’s adversaries are also the deadliest up front, with Madrid having racked up 83 goals to Barcelona’s 75. With two of his most important players making very large contributions to those tallies, Argentina coach Diego Maradona would be well advised not to miss this weekend’s big game. Messi has chipped in with the small matter of 26 of those goals, making him the top scorer in the land, while fellow Albiceleste Higuain is not far behind with 24.
Yet for some reason, neither player has proved quite as effective in the famous blue-and-white striped jersey, though with 'The Flea' in such superb form and Higuain now established as one of the world’s top strikers, Maradona can surely expect fireworks from them in South Africa.
His Brazil counterpart Dunga will no doubt be keeping a close eye on events at the Bernabeu as well. The former FIFA World Cup winner has a key player on either side, with Kaka’s patchy form since moving to Madrid from Milan and his recent injury problems causing considerable concern back home, not least for the President of Brazil Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. “I think Kaka is an absolutely vital player for the national team,” said Lula recently. “He is still a magnificent footballer. He’s just going through a bad patch, that’s all.”
On a more positive note for Dunga, compatriot Dani Alves has overcome his injury worries and is shuttling up and down up the Barça right flank with customary élan once more.
Bench beckons for France’s finest
France coach Raymond Domenech will probably only get to see one of his players in action. Though he has not had the greatest of campaigns, Real Madrid’s Lassana Diarra is an important cog in Les Bleus' midfield. Disappointingly for Domenech, two of his leading strikers will in all probability start the game on the bench, albeit for different reasons.
Since his arrival in the Spanish capital Karim Benzema has failed to replicate the goalscoring form he showed for Olympique Lyon two seasons ago. Having struggled to bed down, the French striker of Algerian extraction has hit only seven goals in 19 Liga outings.
France captain Thierry Henry owes his place on the sidelines to the emergence of Barcelona prodigies Pedro and Bojan Krkic and the arrival of Swedish star Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Messi’s stellar form has further eclipsed the former Arsenal legend, though he still has the ability to make an impact whenever called upon.
Last but most certainly not least, there is the inimitable Cristiano Ronaldo, currently fourth in the scoring charts with 18 goals. Analysing the Portuguese flyer’s performance will be his national coach Carlos Queiroz, who will be anxious to see him arrive in South Africa in peak form and fitness.
The stage is set then for a quite magnificent occasion and one that will give a clutch of national coaches a very good indication of how their brightest stars will perform on the biggest stage in just a few weeks’ time. Let the clásico commence.