Madrid (AFP) – Zinedine Zidane and Ernesto Valverde might have been fearing for their jobs if they had lost a Clasico back in October but its postponement means that on Wednesday they can face each other feeling more secure.
Stalling in the autumn, Real Madrid and Barcelona have rolled through the gears in the lead-up to Christmas, meaning the winner of Wednesday’s crunch meeting at Camp Nou will move seven points clear of third place.
More importantly, in what increasingly looks like a two-pronged title chase, the winner will pull three ahead of the loser, with one round Liga matches left before the two-week winter break.
Yet even for the loser, providing defeat is not a humiliation, the consequences will not be so grave.
The gap in the table will be small and considering where both these teams were only a few weeks ago, when every week brought a new name linked with coaching jobs and every goal conceded planted another seed of doubt.
For Real Madrid, Jose Mourinho was out of work and in the public eye, his increasingly frequent media showings even appearing to irk the usually immoveable Zidane.
“Football forgets what you’ve done in the past,” said Zidane in October.
“I’m not going to tell you what they say doesn’t bother me because it bothers me, but I can’t prevent people giving their opinions.”
For Barcelona, Ronald Koeman had surged into view after the Dutch Federation confirmed a clause in his contract that allows him to join Barca after Euro 2020 next summer.
But if the rumours were an irritation, form on the pitch was a real concern.
Barcelona’s malaise was short-lived. They won only two of their opening five games. Results improved but performances were ponderous and the weaknesses all-too familiar, the kind that had also gone unfixed before, only to prove costly later in the season.
In that sense, Valverde was carrying the weight of previous disappointments and he was blamed for a leaky defence, lack of style and failure to get the best out of Antoine Griezmann.
“At the start of the season, it’s not about winning one title, it’s about winning three or four,” said Valverde in November. “So the frustration when you don’t win a game is high.”
Zidane also shouldered burdens from last season. Even if it was not his team that limped its way through the final months, he was in charge and some wondered why nothing had changed.
Suspicions grew when Madrid drew two of their first four league games and were thrashed away at Paris Saint-Germain.
– ‘More life’ –
When they lost away at newly-promoted Mallorca, a week before the Clasico was meant to be played, it felt like results might unravel.
“We must have consistency,” said Zidane. “We have to have more life in our game.”
Madrid did that as Zidane found a more settled side including the dynamic midfielder he has long-wanted in Fede Valverde as well as an 18-year-old gem in Rodrygo and arguably the world’s most in-form striker in Karim Benzema.
Eden Hazard got fit too and sparkled in spells before injuring his ankle earlier this month, which will rule him out until the new year.
As Madrid hit their stride, Barcelona accelerated to keep up and the uncertainty around Valverde, although not gone, has, for now at least, faded.
Their improvement cannot be entirely credited to the return of Lionel Messi, but his eight goals, including two hat-tricks, and four assists in six games have certainly helped. Griezmann is finding his feet too, with three goals in his last five.
“It is true we were struggling but we have also done things well,” Valverde said last month. “Leaders in La Liga, first in our Champions League group. We have to follow our path.”
Judgement on Zidane’s second coming will be guided by Madrid’s staying power in the league while for Valverde, success will hinge on Europe, where recapturing the trophy after four barren seasons seems now to be the minimum for Barcelona.
Storms may lie ahead but as La Liga approaches its halfway point, Zidane and Valverde are still intact. This Clasico is a battle of leaders, but survivors too.
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