x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Renewing a classic rivalry

El Clasico. Barcelona versus Real Madrid. Catalans versus Castilians. 18 titles versus 31. Two European Cups versus nine European Cups. Xavi versus Raul.

Raul, right, and Xavi fight for the ball during an El Clasico game. The rivalry is oneof the longest-running in Spanish football.
Raul, right, and Xavi fight for the ball during an El Clasico game. The rivalry is oneof the longest-running in Spanish football.

El Clasico. Barcelona versus Real Madrid. Catalans versus Castilians. 18 titles versus 31. Two European Cups versus nine European Cups. Johan Cruyff versus Alfred Di Stefano. Xavi versus Raul. The list of players, rivalry and revelry is time-honoured and almost endless, but the history books marking their confrontations areunbounded over a century of jousting. On Sunday, it begins again.

The quest to win the Spanish league is traditionally fought out between these two clubs. This year, it could be settled by two men. But claims such as this could have been trotted out over the past 10 years, such as been the longevity of Xavi and Raul within their own vicinity. In football, they are two of the game's purest thoroughbreds. In an era when players are used to being on the move, these delectable peformers have spent their careers at one club.

Xavi has played at Barcelona since he was 11, Raul with Real since the age of 15. Xavi played as Spain were proclaimed champions of Euro 2008, the striker Raul, quite mystifyingly when one studies his demeanour, was left behind. In the realms of aristocrats playing in Spain, they are of pure stock. Once regarded as a defensive midfielder, Xavi's credibility as a craftsman of endless energy rose immeasurably as he cavorted around Austria and Switzerland probing at defences in Euro 2008.

Prompted by a man born in the heart of Catalonia, a royal Spain side appeared to have an extra man on the pitch in flattening their foes. He was named Uefa's player of the tournament. Xavi, 28, was viewed as the successor at Barcelona to Josep Guardiola, who is now the head coach. He has a contract with the Catalans that runs until 2010, there is already talk about extending it, and a buyout clause in his contract worth ?125millon (Dh675m)

Xavi played his 422nd game for the club in the second leg of their Champions League qualifier with Wisla Krakow on Tuesday, to occupy third place in the list of all-time appearances for Barcelona. Raul has played in 483 matches for Real, and seems to get better with age. His 18 goals helped Real win the title last year, perhaps aided by the coach Bernd Schuster's willingness to throw him further forward. Spain wallowed in undeniable riches that they could afford to omit him from the side that won the European title, but it was the coach Luis Aragones's prickly relationship with Raul that surely denied him a place in the squad rather than any natural instincts.

Raul has scored 44 goals in his 102 appearances for Spain. He is the highest scorer in the Champions League with 61 goals. Real won the Primera Liga with a record 85 points, yet it was not deemed one of their most productive campaigns as Barcelona, under the outgoing Frank Rijkaard, strained badly for the majority of it. They seemed to descend into a deep depression. Barcelona's season reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, but their domestic form was so poor that they also collapsed into third place behind Villarreal, and finished 18 points behind Real.

Spanish players were the spine behind Real's second straight league title: with Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Guti and Raul excelling. Barcelona appeared to be full of recriminations amid the close season, with Ronaldinho moving on to AC Milan and Thierry Henry blaming Rijkaard's insistence on playing him when he was not fit for his lapse in form. Guardiola's most eye-catching aquisition is Daniel Alves from Sevilla, but Seydou Keita and Alexander Hleb are examples of a worth ethic that was missing from Rijkaard's team.

Rafael Van der Vaart is expected to add thrust to Real after moving from Hamburg, with Wesley Sneijder attempting to rid himself of injury. Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. It is men such as Xavi and Raul who are likely to dictate how the season unravels. @Email:dkane@thenational.ae