By Iain Rogers
Clashes between Real Madrid and Barcelona are rarely short on drama and Saturday’s La Liga ‘Clasico’ (7pm) may have more than its usual share with Luis Suarez poised to return from a biting ban and Barca team-mate Lionel Messi on the brink of equalling the top-flight scoring record.
Watched by millions around the world, meetings between the European heavyweights have, over the years, showcased the spectacular talents of the game’s best, while occasionally being marred by ugly controversy.
The matches are also played out against the background of national politics and the latest edition has an added edge given the ongoing battle between the central government in Madrid and the Catalan administration in Barcelona over the region’s independence drive.
It is not for nothing that a recent book chronicling the Real-Barca rivalry by Spanish football specialist Sid Lowe was entitled ‘Fear and Loathing in La Liga’.
Those who have graced the ‘Clasico’ over the years include Real greats Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas and Raul and Barca legends Ladislao Kubala, Cesar Rodriguez and Diego Maradona, while the current crop of players boasts multiple Ballon d’Or winners Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi.
The unseemly side of arguably the biggest fixture in club football has seen Barca fans toss the head of a suckling pig at Real midfielder Figo – who left Barca to join their arch rivals – and his Portuguese compatriot Jose Mourinho, at the time in charge at Real, poking Barca assistant coach Tito Vilanova in the eye during a mass brawl.
Saturday’s game at the Bernabeu, the 169th La Liga meeting between the world’s richest clubs by income, is unlikely to produce incidents of similar magnitude and Barca will be hoping Suarez and Messi make headlines for the right reasons.
Suarez’s four-month ban for biting an opponent at the World Cup expires on Friday and the Uruguay forward could make his official Barca debut in a formidable three-pronged attack with Messi and Neymar.
Messi, meanwhile, is one goal short of the Liga scoring record of 251, set six decades ago by Telmo Zarra, and the 27-year-old Argentina captain is the leading scorer in ‘Clasicos’ with 21 goals in all competitions, two more than Di Stefano.
Barca midfielder Ivan Rakitic, who joined from Sevilla in the close season and could feature in his first Real-Barca game, summed up what taking part in a ‘Clasico’ means to a player.
“I dreamed about it as a child but now I don’t want to dream about it I want to experience it,” Rakitic said in an interview with Spanish television broadcaster Gol Television this week.
“I used to watch them at home with my wife as a football fan because it’s a match in which the world’s best players clash,” added the Croatia international.
“Hopefully I won’t have to watch it on TV again because I want to experience it on the pitch.”
After an early-season wobble, Real have been in scintillating form in recent weeks and Ronaldo has netted a jaw-dropping 15 goals in seven La Liga outings.
Messi and Neymar have also been typically prolific, with the Argentine on seven goals and the Brazilian on eight.
A win for leaders Barca, who have yet to concede a goal in eight La Liga matches this term and won both fixtures last season, would stretch their advantage over third-placed Real to seven points.
Real are likely to be without Wales winger and record signing Gareth Bale, who has a buttock muscle strain and missed the Liverpool game, while Spain centre back Sergio Ramos has been sidelined by a calf injury.
“We’re in good form and in good shape, focused and playing really well,” Real coach Carlo Ancelotti said after Wednesday’s 3-0 Champions League success at Liverpool.
“We go into the Clasico in great shape and Barcelona also go into the match in ideal condition.”
The stage is set then for another titanic battle when there will be far more than a mere three points in the La Liga title race at stake.