Prepare for a new era of El Clásico. Barcelona and Real Madrid are not the juggernauts of the late 2000s and 2010s anymore.
In that span, the two biggest clubs in Spain emerged as the two biggest clubs in the world.
First off, Barcelona is the most-followed and ranks highest in terms of popularity in the United States, according to Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing. Real Madrid comes in at second. Also, look no further than social media followings between the two clubs.
Essentially, it is Barcelona in first and Real Madrid in second. Then, there is a massive drop off in terms of global following until you reach Manchester United in third. Barcelona and Real Madrid have nearly identical masses on social media, 273 million and 272 million, respectively. In third, Manchester United has roughly 129 million less followers than the two Spanish giants.
Of course, the masses love success.
Domestically, the two clubs have 15 of the last 17 LaLiga crowns, with Barcelona putting up 10 titles compared to Real’s five since 2004/05. In the Copa del Rey, the clubs share nine of the last 13 championships. Once again, Barcelona holds the edge with six in that span.
Internationally, the two clubs both claimed half of the Champions League titles from 2005/06 to 2020/21. Even then, neither club won the last three, illuminating the dominance of both clubs over the last decade-and-a-half.
Glamour and trophies walk in the shadows of these two massive clubs. However, these shadows grew ever smaller over the last two to three years.
Now, in the 2021/22 season, we see largely different entities ahead of the new era of El Clásico. The game lacks star power, fan aura and a certain level of passion.
Even then, drama persists in the game’s biggest rivalry.
The old guard
Cristiano Ronaldo departed the Santiago Bernabeu in 2018 after nine seasons in Madrid. The Portuguese opted for Juventus after four Champions League trophies in five seasons.
More recently, Barcelona’s financial issues practically forced the club’s greatest player out despite offering to take monumental pay cuts.
READ MORE: Barcelona’s financial crisis and departure of Lionel Messi.
On both sides, certain players propelled each club to domestic and European success. Barcelona’s core changed due to the fact that their four UCL titles in nine years were spread out. Even then, Neymar and Luis Suarez became household names during their time at Camp Nou. Likewise, Andres Iniesta and Xavi brought their tiki-taka style to Barcelona, something lacking in recent years.
For Real Madrid, the losses go beyond just Ronaldo. The spiritual leader of the club, Sergio Ramos, left for PSG in the summer of 2021. The center back occupied a spot in the Los Blancos back line since 2005. He is tied with Lionel Messi for most appearances in the derby with 45.
The new era of El Clásico is not just in the players are already gone. Fans must accept that we are seeing the last appearances in this rivalry for a number of historic players.
First off, the entire midfield of Real Madrid that fans know consists of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Casemiro. The average age of these players is 32. That’s not old, per se, but it is not the thriving youth we see throughout the world’s game.
Similarly, Sergio Busquets, Pique and Jordi Alba are all mainstays in the Barcelona lineup. They have been for years. Their average age is 33. Again, these names are not guaranteed to retire after this season. Yet, there are signs that we are witnessing the twilight of these players’ careers.
Youth climbing the ranks
On both sides of the rivalry, a number of young talents are leading the new era of El Clásico.
Karim Benzema leads the league in goals and assists. Already, the Frenchman is putting up career-best numbers in the famous white kit of Real Madrid. However, he is not doing this alone. His 21-year-old teammate sits in third in LaLiga goals.
Going into Sunday’s fixture against Barcelona, Vinicius Júnior has five league goals in eight games played.
The Brazilian brought expectations galore upon his arrival from Flamengo as an 18-year-old wonder. A sluggish first couple seasons brought some of his hype down. However, he is now showing why Florentino Perez and Los Blancos paid $50 million for his services.
While Real Madrid’s traditional midfield trio is aging, there are certain players already making a name for themselves. Federico Valverde is now one of the premier midfielders in LaLiga. The 23-year-old Uruguayan has the hearts of Real Madrid fans seeming to have the same passion as other players to come out of La Castilla. Finally, Eduardo Camavinga is an 18-year-old French international. A highly touted prospect in his first season at Real Madrid, Camavinga helped Stade Rennais qualify for the Champions League as a 17-year-old midfielder.
Finally, Marco Asensio is 25, which is not necessarily ‘young’ by today’s standards. But, by the same token, he seems to have been at the Bernabeu for years. His talent is no secret when it comes to scoring and playmaking.
Real Madrid is a balanced side. Their combination of experience with Champions League winners blends well with the youthful exuberance coming through the ranks. The current squad may not be the best in Europe currently, but the foundations are there.
It may never be possible to top the contributions and impact Lionel Messi made during his tenure at Barcelona. However, just like Messi graduated from Barcelona’s academy, there are new talents making consistent appearances for the first team.
The prospects emerging from La Masia are already stalwarts of the Catalan club. Pedri and Ansu Fati highlight the players on Ronald Koeman’s choices. However, Pedri, who is among the favorites to win the 2021 Golden Boy award, remains sidelined ahead of El Clásico with an injury.
Still, Ansu Fati returned this season after a knee injury kept him out of the majority of 2020/21. Already, the 18-year-old Spaniard has two goals and an assist in five games this season.
Elsewhere, a number of current Barcelona players are under 24. For example, Frenkie de Jong and Ousmane Dembele are in the middle of the pack in terms of age at 24, and Barcelona bought them both at least three years ago. Then, Riqui Puig and Oscar Mingueza are both academy graduates at just 22. Finally, Eric Garcia and Sergiño Dest round out the defense with both players aged 20.
Still, Barcelona and Ronald Koeman often deploy a number of ‘older’ players as the club tries to fight back from their tough start to the season.
A new era of El Clásico
Sunday’s game is the first derby meeting with fans in the stands since March 1, 2020. Back then, COVID-19 was just starting to spread rapidly throughout the world, and a 2-0 Real Madrid win helped Los Blancos en route to a five-point LaLiga title.
Now, both teams differ in their makeup and standing. Real Madrid is second in the league table behind Real Sociedad. Albeit, Real does have a game in hand and a monster lead in terms of goal differential.
Their rivals are not sitting as pretty. Sure, the Catalan club is among the teams with a game in hand on much of the league. However, the club sits in the seventh spot in the table, trailing Real, Atletico and Sevilla by two points. Additionally, all those teams are on eight games played, meaning Barcelona is just behind the pace.
In Europe, Real Madrid sits in second in their group. Los Blancos suffered an unthinkable home defeat to Moldovan side Sheriff Tiraspol, 2-1, in matchday two.
Barcelona is coming off their first Champions League win, and first Champions League goal, against Dynamo Kyiv. A paid of 3-0 losses to Bayern at home and Benfica on the road leave the club in third. Many expected Barcelona’s struggles this season with their captain and club legend leaving.
Fortunately for the culers, they seem to be slowly righting the ship with their youth coming through. However, they face one of their toughest tests to this young season at home against Real Madrid.
Kickoff is set for Sunday at 10:15 a.m. ET exclusively on ESPN+.
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