The 174th league installment of Spain’s Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona kicks off this weekend, as if you weren’t aware. Following a dizzying couple of midweek Champions League fixtures that saw Real Madrid advance to the semifinals and Barcelona fail to, everyone’s attention, at least for the time being, turns to the old derby.
And with just six weeks left in the La Liga season, Sunday’s clash will either excitedly extend or completely obliterate the Primera title race. So yeah, it’s important.
2016-17’s La Liga title race has unceremoniously been branded as “the trophy that nobody wants to win.” It’s true, in part. At numerous moments of divergence, both giants have squandered every opportunity to either bury or alert the other (with Madrid doing the burying and Barca the alerting within the analogy).
Just recall, it was only a fortnight ago that Madrid dropped points in the Madrid derby early in the day only for Barca to shoot themselves in their own foot hours later against Malaga. Likewise, it feels as if Madrid are on a mission to turn every mickey mouse fixture against a bottom half Liga side into a 15-round heavyweight bout.
Coming into this weekend, however, it’s clear that any notable Clasico advantage lies in the capital. Zidane’s men haven’t lost in their last thirteen total matches and just beat Bayern Munich twice in one week. Barca, on the other hand, have dropped two of their last four, with their only win being a narrow 3-2 victory over Real Sociedad. Madrid may have looked unconvincing at times in recent months, but Barca have looked virtually unrecognizable.
Add on the fact that Neymar — besides Lionel Messi, Barcelona’s most influential player this season — failed to have his red card from the Malaga loss rescinded, and that Madrid’s flashy superstar, Gareth Bale, will be returning from injury just in time for kickoff, and it’s clear that all signs point towards a White Sunday.
If there’s a consolatory point for the Catalans, it’s that perhaps being knocked out of Europe has a liberating effect on their players. A long shot, but it’s at least somewhat justified to believe that Madrid might have an eye turned towards Juventus. This could very well manifest itself through complacency or even the resting of crucial players.
Still, although most would have you believe that La Liga is over and done with, it’s not. Sure, in most years a league-leading Madrid side who are three points clear with a game-in-hand would be a veritable foregone conclusion. After all, both Madrid and Barca typically go full league campaigns without experiencing any huge, extended collapse of form; although Spain’s Primera is plenty competitive top-to-bottom, the juggernauts at the top remain very damned difficult to topple.
But this isn’t most years. In fact, more than any season of the last decade, 2016-17 has become a showcasing of two giants at the top who just can’t quite snatch the crown for themselves.
Therefore, while Madrid have what we’d usually consider a stranglehold on La Liga’s top spot, they cannot entirely be trusted. Furthermore, if there’s a time for Zidane’s bend-but-don’t-break Merengues to finally break, it’s probably right about now, amid a brutal, late-season fixture congestion. Because of this, it’d be improper for anyone — player, coach, pundit or otherwise — to approach this weekend with any flippancy.
Still, this Madrid side, although erratic and mysterious, do have a destiny-like aura surrounding them. Despite lackluster displays on many occasions this Primera season, Zidane’s boys have managed to wrestle W’s away from a combative universe on countless occasions, be it through an inexplicable BBC cameo, or an Isco masterclass, or the Hollywood-scripted Sergio Ramos late jackmove.
It’s caused people like The Guardian’s Sid Lowe to christen them “the most overrated and underrated team in Europe.” But while they’ve consistently found themselves in positions to lose match after match after match, they haven’t indeed lost them. That’s the stuff of magic and, according to some, villainy. It’s also the stuff of champions.