Sunday 20 January 2019

James Lawton: Old flames may burn but magic of El Clasico will soon become just a fond memory

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcelo, right, celebrate after winning the Club World Cup final soccer match between Real Madrid and Gremio. Photo: Hassan Ammar/AP
Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcelo, right, celebrate after winning the Club World Cup final soccer match between Real Madrid and Gremio. Photo: Hassan Ammar/AP

James Lawton

Not so long ago it would have been a football blasphemy. Or at least a bit like saying the Taj Mahal had become just a little old hat. But then who cannot worry that something is missing from the latest instalment of El Clasico in the Bernabeu at high noon?

It is, maybe, a feeling that an edge of fantasy has been lost. That the feasts upon which we have gorged for so long - and which are being extolled this week by a La Liga team of ex-luminary player ambassadors like Gaizka Mendieta and Fernando Morientes in selected fan centres stretching from Ho Chi Minh City to Shanghai - may be in danger of becoming treasures of the past rather than the certainties of the future.

In their hustling La Liga boast of a projected TV audience of well over half a billion. And why not? No football club contest trails quite so much exquisite glory. But the question will not go away. Could it be that the best is indeed part of the past?

In some ways this may sound absurd because the problem is hardly a lack of more than passable achievement, nor any danger of the absence of the world's two best players.

Cristiano Ronaldo's Real are freshly crowned Fifa World Club champions, can look back on two straight Champions' League triumphs, and if they do happen to trail Barcelona in La Liga by 11 points, they can still brag about their aggregate slaughter of the leaders in the Super Cup final.

Ronaldo was typically still sufficiently bullish to demand - not successfully, unsurprisingly - an honour guard of Barca players after Real's triumph over Brazilian club Gremio.

From Barca there is the legitimate claim they have stiffened considerably under new coach Ernesto Valverde after last season's disappointments and that it is Real's Zinedine Zidane who is under the hardest pressure now as he looks up the table at not just Barca but also Atletico Madrid and Valencia.

Barcelona can reassure themselves that Lionel Messi remains in full working order, with 14 goals and involvement in 19 while his great rival Ronaldo huffs and pouts with only four goals against his name.

That is six fewer than the same point last season and at 32, some believe he is beginning to exhibit signs of inevitable slippage from sublime peaks of a once unanswerable talent.

But then perhaps it is not the seamless march of the years that is the shadow over the latest Clasico, or the beginnings of one, but a quite perceptible change in philosophy by the club who were not only the glory of Catalonia but also the world.

Barca's hugely experienced Croatian midfielder Ivan Rakitic put it boldly enough when he announced this week: "I think now it is really hard to attack Barca. We are closer together, the lines are better."

He sounded more like a captain of infantry than a star of the club which for more than a decade has best defined the depth of beauty and subtlety in the world's most popular game - but we can be sure it brought a glow to his boss Valverde.

When Luis Enrique left the Nou Camp at the end of last season Barca might have picked from the cream of the coaching world - perhaps even, after his first disappointing year at Manchester City, regaining the architect of their most luminous success, Pep Guardiola.


Instead, they chose hard and efficient pro Valverde, a man who, it seems, believes more in fortitude than fantasy. He won three league titles in Greece and did impressive work at Athletic Bilboa, winning the La Liga coach of the year award for his upset over Barca in the 2015 Super Cup. He is a tough, thorough pro who believes it is in the detail of football that so many games are won or lost.

But was he going to deepen and expand the mystique, would he return to the club he briefly played for in the pursuit of perfection that has driven and, at times, haunted Guardiola? It hardly seemed likely.

While Guardiola makes a new empire in East Manchester, and fills it with the promise of beautiful - and ultimately winning - football, Valverde sets up the tight lines of defence so appreciated by Rakitic. He has the robust Paulinho, scorer of six goals, adding weight to Barcelona's new 4-4-2 system and another repercussion is that Messi, while maintaining his scoring efficiency, has become a little less the genius visionary and more an exploiter of Paulinho's ceaseless vigour.

None of this has apparently thrilled the third member of the old killer triumvirate, Luis Suarez - no more, certainly, than it has those who see in Barcelona something more than a merely winning football team but the creators of artistry which has rarely been matched in the history of the game.

It means that while Valverde continues to tighten his lines, and Zidane calls desperately for increased productivity from Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, there is an inevitable sense we may have seen the best of an epic rivalry.

So today we yearn again for the matchless inventions of an unfettered Messi, whose genius was so brilliantly exploited by Guardiola. We want to see Ronaldo in pulverising rather than posturing mode. Perhaps we are pining for a vintage that, for some time at least, is not there to be gathered in, give or take a Kevin De Bruyne or a Leroy Sane, who of course just happen to be playing for Pep Guardiola.

Maybe we are overly concerned that Messi is 30, Ronaldo 32 and Iniesta is 33 and ignore too bleakly the possibility that some old flames will burn again at the Bernabeu today. Still, whoever thought the day would come when someone might whisper Barca were becoming a team against whom it was more difficult to attack than to defend? This, surely, is a worry threatening to creep into the bones.

  • Real Madrid v Barcelona, Live, Sky Sports Mix, 12.0

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