With today’s momentous el Clasico looming, I had the distinct pleasure of discussing the game with esteemed pundit and writer Guillem Balague.
Guillem has penned some superb books on some iconic figures in the Spanish game and opened up about how he feels both sides are shaping up ahead of the showdown at the Nou Camp this weekend.
Matt Jones (MJ): We’ve been running a feature this week looking back at iconic Clasico moments. Do you have a particular favorite moment that stands out?
Guillem Balague (GB): The moment when Pep Guardiola decided to ask Messi to drop deep and told Eto’o to play wide right in that magnificent, historic Real Madrid 2-6 Barcelona match.
The story is that on the Thursday of that week Guardiola—who waited for that moment, of clearance, of light on how to beat their rival—realized that the two centre-backs of Real Madrid drop very deep and there was a gap to be exploited.
At 10:30 p.m. in the training ground, he called up Messi and showed him the video, then instructed Xavi and Andres Iniesta to pass him the ball if you see him running towards the defenders because he will use his pace and skill to get the goal. And it worked wonderfully. It was a little twist that changed history!
MJ: It’s remarkable to see the contrasting fortunes of both teams coming into this one. What’s been the key factor in the turnaround in fortunes for both sides?
GB: In the case of Real Madrid, they quite clearly made a huge effort to win the Club World Cup and in the case of Ronaldo, a huge effort to win the Ballon d’Or. So there was a lot of pressure on this team at the beginning of the season.
There also wasn’t enough rotation. You may play with the same XI from January onwards but you must make sure everyone is fresh; Barcelona have done that, so that’s one key reason. Injuries as well, to Luka Modric especially.
For Barcelona, the key was the Real Sociedad defeat and on the next day Messi didn’t train. It was just a way of making sure everything was in place. The coach was able to do some experiments and realized the important people at the club are the players, especially Messi. Then we started seeing Barcelona winning much more regularly.
MJ: The incident involving Ronaldo and Bale has been a hot topic this week. Do you think it’s been blown out of proportion, or do you think there some genuine underpinning angst?
GB: I think it’s part of a transition that may take place at Real Madrid that will determine who could be the next Galactico. Bale has been bought as a Galactico and sometimes has the behavior of a Galactico with his goalscoring, but there are other things he has to do to improve still. There is only room for one Galactico, in terms of defensive work or in the case of being the superstar.
I don’t think there is personal tension, but there is professional tension. When you bring a would-be superstar in with another superstar, there is only one ball! So how to split that ball is always a dispute.
MJ: What’s the best way for Real to approach this game given Barcelona’s sensational recent form? They seem to be trying to create a siege mentality.
GB: Well, those things always help, but not just that. The return of Modric is definitely important. This is not a team that is willing to replace the problems they may have in terms of individuals’ lack of sharpness with collective effort, because that’s not how Real Madrid works, or how Carlo Ancelotti works.
But one thing that he needs is for everybody to be generous in their effort and one way of doing that is training it, saying it and making sure there is unity in the camp. So all of those things help, for sure.
MJ: Barcelona have been in stunning form as of late. Is there a festering belief that this team is capable of going on to emulate the achievements of the 2009 crop?
GB: That’s impossible, isn’t it!? Because it wasn’t just what they (the 2009 team) did, but the way in which they did it. This group is aiming to replicate that but there is a question in my mind. They are playing differently, there is no doubt about that, but we have yet to see them challenged by the top level teams.
Manchester City was a challenge, but you could say one half was good and one not so good in both games. They still lose control sometimes and let teams have chances, so they’re not quite as dominant as teams in the past. But they are in all three competitions and are competitive.
They could win the league, the Copa del Rey; the Champions League is a different matter. But I’m sure it’s something they feel capable of doing.
MJ: Messi has had his role tweaked in this side and looks rejuvenated. Does Luis Enrique deserve credit for his resurgence?
GB: Yes, but it was the players who changed this position in conversation with the manager too.
Enrique’s plan was to have Messi behind two forwards who played inside, with the width to be added by the full-backs. But the players told him “look, we need two wide forwards, otherwise things will get bogged down in the middle”.
So they started playing with Luis Suarez in the center and Messi was shifted wide right, because there was no spaces in the positions Messi typically works. It wasn’t just Enrique, if you have to give credit to people it should probably be to the players themselves and to Messi.
MJ: Do you think Messi is in the best form of his career at the moment?
GB: It’s quite clear that his style is different as he is almost assisting as much as he is scoring. So from that point of view, he’s a more complete player. But he once scored 91 goals in one year!
He was also instrumental in big games. So, we’re still talking about a Messi—a fantastic Messi—that hasn’t won anything, so lets talk at the end of the season. Messi has scored around 20 goals in 17 finals that has made him the best in history.
This is a very impressive Messi, but we need to see him doing it for the entire season; let’s not judge too soon.
MJ: After a difficult start to life at Barcelona, how important has Luis Suarez been to Barcelona and in getting the best out of Messi?
GB: He needed to score goals for everybody to say “OK, yes”. Everybody saw the work-rate was there, but at Barcelona you have to score goals.
What is interesting is that if you put the three together (Messi, Neymar and Suarez), they score less, concede more and win less games than if you only have two. So at the moment there’s still an imbalance when the three of them play.
There is still more work by the three of them to be done if they want to play together. In terms of Luis Suarez, he’s added goals to his work-rate and there is no doubt he is a superstar. Still, the first touch of him compared to the touch of the guys around him seems to be a little bit rusty, so he needs to work on that, but he’s getting closer to the levels we expected.
MJ: Has the game become such that each Clasico is inevitably gets bigger than the last?
GB: Well we’ve got short memories, sometimes we are like goldfish in a bowl! But we are talking about more people following it, people seeing it in three dimensions, knowing the characters involved, knowing the context and that makes it even more exciting.
As do more television channels looking after the game, making it good, making the build-up to the show exciting and all of that helps. So yeah, every one does seem to be a little bigger than the last.
MJ: Do you foresee any changes in regards to distribution deals in regards to televised Spanish football? What effect could that potentially have on the Clasico?
GB: It is going to change and is going to become a law. The government has passed the regulations down for political reasons. But everybody—including Barcelona and Real Madrid—have agreed that this has to change, as long as Barcelona and Real Madrid get the same amount of money, meaning everybody else gets more. So we should see more balance.
The regulations were promised in January, nothing has quite happened yet and it’s still a little bit of a mess. We are working towards a more democratic model, but seeing as Barcelona and Real Madrid bring in more money, they should get more money.
MJ: How are you expecting the game to pan out this weekend?
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