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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

El clasico: Barcelona host Real Madrid with plenty still to play for even if title is already decided

Iniesta's final clasico, an unbeaten league season, and the usual bragging rights up for grabs at the Camp Nou on Sunday.

Lionel Messi, left, and Barcelona will be aiming to win el clasico in the final time Andres Iniesta, right, faces Real Madrid. Ballesteros / EPA
Lionel Messi, left, and Barcelona will be aiming to win el clasico in the final time Andres Iniesta, right, faces Real Madrid. Ballesteros / EPA

May 7, 2008. Real Madrid fans, excited about what’s going to happen, begin forming mock guards of honour outside the Bernabeu stadium and clapping each other through.

Inside the stadium before the clasico, Barcelona’s players form the real thing to applaud the new champions of Spain onto the pitch. All the time, they are abused for being "separatists" and "mongrels" by 800 ultras behind the south terrace. They sing "El Viva Espanya!" and "Barca, you salute the champions!"

The home players emerge from the tunnel, but don’t take their opportunity to rub their foes’ noses in it, instead shaking hands by way of thanks and moving quickly onto the field.

Madrid then celebrate their league title triumph in style by crushing Barca, whose manager Frank Rijkaard knew he was on the way out, 4-1.

It was the first time Madrid have done the double over Barca in 24 years and a result which helped deprive the Catalans of an automatic place in the Uefa Champions League. Yet Barca have won seven of the league titles which followed.

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Read more:

El clasico: Barcelona host Real Madrid proud of season despite Champions League exit

Barcelona 'lacked brilliance' despite clinching title with 15 point gap on Real Madrid

Iniesta takes in final Barca bus parade as fans line streets to celebrate double - in pictures

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May 6, 2018. The shoe is now on the other foot.

Barcelona are the newly crowned champions of Spain and Real Madrid are the first visitors to Camp Nou since it happened. Will Madrid do what Barca did almost a decade ago to the day?

Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane has long said no, feeling slighted that Barcelona didn’t applaud his players after they were crowned world champions in Abu Dhabi a few days before the December clasico, which Barca won 3-0 in Madrid. The league title has barely been in doubt since.

But there’s a further twist. It’s the final clasico of Andres Iniesta, the most popular player across Spain. Barca might be despised at Espanyol or in Madrid, but Iniesta has been applauded at both. He scored the winning goal for Spain in the World Cup final, then he raised his shirt to show that he had not forgotten Dani Jarque, the captain of Espanyol who had died the previous year. Iniesta’s class extends beyond what he does on the field.

A likely compromise could be a guard of honour, formed by both teams for Iniesta, before the clasico takes place in front of 99,000 spectators.

Speaking before the game, Zidane maintained his long held view that it’s harder to win the Primera Liga than the Champions League. His honesty is appreciated as most believe lifting the Champions League trophy is football’s pinnacle, which he has reached twice in the past two seasons as manager.

The Primera Liga’s popularity around the world is second only to the Premier League, but domestic games don't compare globally with those giant Champions League nights that have been so enthralling this season. Barca did feature in two of them against Roma. Unfortunately they were on the losing side.

It will be Madrid who garner global attention for weeks ahead of their Champions League final with Liverpool in Kiev - a Madrid who are in with another shout of yet another Champions League, European Super Cup and World Club Championship. Barca have those global ambitions, but they are struggling to compete with Madrid outside Spain. Everyone is.

It shouldn't matter. Barca are Spanish champions and cup winners. This season has been a huge success for Ernesto Valverde’s side who are unbeaten in the league and 15 points clear of third placed Madrid, but that is not enough.

Barca fans chided Madrid when they couldn’t get beyond Europe’s last 16 for five seasons in a row. Now Madrid fans do the same, not that there will be more than 200 travelling fans in the first Camp Nou clasico since October’s controversial referendum on Catalan independence, an issue which still smoulders.

Expect a huge chant for "independence" and "liberty" for Catalonia’s political prisoners. Expect vast flags in English as protestors try to take advantage of the global television audience. It’s likely to go beyond the usual "Catalonia is not Spain" flag.Expect both teams to play their best sides as the world tunes in to the biggest game in club football.

There is not a game in the world like it which can deliver anything like the consistency and excellence. Barca want to become the first Spanish team to go unbeaten all season, Madrid want to stop them, to get revenge for December and to show why they are the best team in the world, if not Spain.