Real's Oranje crush
If you are paying a visit to Barcelona or Madrid this weekend, do not be surprised to see the streets empty as Saturday evening wears on. Not even Christmas shopping can match the lure of one of the biggest attractions on the global footballing calendar, and for 90 minutes attention will turn away from brightly decorated shop windows towards to the 157th meeting between Spain's deadliest adversaries.
"Barça and Madrid are like a see-saw," said Azulgrana midfielder Xavi Hernandez earlier this week. "When one side is up, the other always seems to be down." A glance at the league table reveals the playmaker's analogy to be an accurate one. While Barcelona are riding high at the top of the table, six points clear of Villarreal in second, Madrid are stuck in rut in fifth, all of nine points off the pace.
In setting the scene for Saturday's showdown, FIFA.com casts an eye beyond the week's managerial upheavals, pre-match declarations and injury bulletins and looks at how Dutch players have switched their allegiance from Blaugrana to Blanco in recent years.
The Dutch invasion
Ten seasons ago Barça coach Josep Guardiola was guiding midfield operations under the orders of Dutch strategist Louis van Gaal, who had assembled a team containing no fewer than eight of his compatriots: Winston Bogarde, Philip Cocu, Frank and Ronald de Boer, Rudolfus Hesp, Patrick Kluivert, Michael Reizeger and Boudewijn Zenden.
The Netherlands contingent accounted for nearly a third of the squad and the coaching staff but the blend seemed to work. That season, 1998/99, the Dutch master collected a second league title with the Catalans, with some commentators dubbing his team the 'Ajax of Barcelona'.
Within eight seasons, however, there was not a single Dutchmen to be found in the Barcelona squad, the last of them, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, returning home to join Feyenoord. That left just Frank Rijkaard on the bench, but when he was eased out at the end of last term, for the first time in many years Dutch football had no representatives at Camp Nou, with the Catalans preferring instead to nurture its homegrown talents alongside a clutch of Africans and Latin Americans.
Yet while the Culés were bidding farewell to Van Gaal, Rijkaard and Co, arch-rivals Real Madrid were building up an Oranje colony of their own. There are six Dutchmen now on the books at the Casa Blanca, with the latest addition Klaas-Jan Huntelaar arriving in the last few days to join Ruud van Nistelrooy, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Royston Drenthe and Rafael van der Vaart.
Huntelaar will not be able to play for his new club until January but as Sneijder recently explained in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, he can expect plenty of support from his fellow countryman. "When I arrived in Madrid Ruud helped me a lot, and it's much easier when you've got a compatriot or two in your team. I think that's enough, though. We speak Dutch among ourselves but we also have to push ourselves to speak Spanish."
Together Sneijder, Van Nistelrooy, Robben and Drenthe helped the Merengues lift the league title last season, a triumph made all the sweeter by a brace of victories over Barcelona, 1-0 at the Camp Nou and 4-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Juande's big day
With Van Nistelrooy still out through injury, Huntelaar sidelined until the New Year for contractual reasons and Robben suspended, Netherlands coach Bert Van Marwijk will only be able to check up on three of his charges when he settles into his seat for the big game.
As for Josep Guardiola, Saturday's clásico will be his first as a coach. Not that he is a stranger to the fixture, however, having faced the men in white 20 times during his playing career. Pep was never on the losing side at home, winning seven and drawing three of those games, although he found success much harder to come by at the Bernabeu, losing five times, drawing four and winning only once.
The cultured midfielder turned coach will be out to maintain his virtually flawless home record on Saturday and condemn Real to a third consecutive league defeat, their worst run since losing five on the trot at the end of the 2003/04 season.
That recent slump cost Bernd Schuster his job earlier this week, with his replacement Juande Ramos kicking off with a UEFA Champions League win against Zenit St Petersburg on Wednesday. Can Ramos make a similarly successful start in La Liga? All will be revealed tomorrow.