x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Two languages, two teams, one big game

The level of anticipation around this season's first El Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid is unprecedented.

El Clasico is a clash of styles, culture and politics.
El Clasico is a clash of styles, culture and politics.

BARCELONA // Even by the exalted standards of expectation surrounding world football's most glamorous and best attended game, the level of anticipation around this season's first El Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid is unprecedented.

So big is the 98,600 capacity Camp Nou, Barca only usually fill it three times a season. It is a given that it will be full for the Real game, plus the latter stages of the Champions League. The ticket agencies which make a fortune supplying tourists with tickets would never tell you this, but if little hinges on the match with Real then tickets are usually on sale for around ?100 (Dh550). Yet before Barca's Champions League game on Tuesday, touts held placards saying that they would offer ?300 for seats for the Real game. If the touts are paying ?300, then they will be marking up the price by another ?200.

The anticipation is understandable and it is not just about the star names. Even when either side have been struggling, they have always boasted big names. This season is no different and in Lionel Messi, Kaka, Ibrahimovic, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Thierry Henry, there are seven footballers who could all stake a very realistic claim to be in the world's top 10. Ronaldo is the European and World Player of the year, while Messi is expected to take both of those crowns after his exertions during Barca's all conquering 2009.

That Ronaldo is set to start his first game since September is an enormous relief to Real supporters, while Barca fans are almost certain that Messi and Ibrahimovic will be back from injury. Barca destroyed a Real side in freefall 6-2 in the last meeting, but everyone expects a much closer encounter tonight. "We are not thinking about beating Real Madrid by many goals," said Barca's midfielder Xavi. "We want the three points and that is what we will go out to win. We have a lot of respect for them and we must be careful because historically these are complicated games."

He is right. It is not just a battle between two languages, two people and, in the eyes of many Catalans, two countries. There is a political context to the game between the best of Catalonia and Castile, but on the more relevant sporting level, both clubs approach team building differently. Barca's philosophy is about creating home-grown talents who are reared to play the Barca way and supplementing them with outrageously gifted foreign footballers. While Real have some home-grown players, they tend to buy players at their peak.

"If I had to choose one of the philosophies I would say that I prefer ours," said Xavi. The expensive acquisition of players like Kaka and Ronaldo mean Real lead the Primera Liga for the first time since the end of their title winning 2007-08 season. Their home record of six consecutive wins looks impressive, but all of those wins have been laboured efforts against lesser teams. Barca too have their issues. They have drawn their past three, admittedly tough, away games in the league, despite dominating possession.

"Madrid are the leaders at the moment and they are scoring goals," added Xavi, "but we are at home and we are highly motivated for the game. The Clasicos are unpredictable games that are decided on small details. We have to try to dominate possession and play like we know how, which is to go forward. We want to play our own game and maintain the style that has brought us good results so far. We have our philosophy and how Madrid play does not interest me."

In the other camp, Real's Sergio Ramos - an international teammate of Xavi - was magnanimous ahead of the big game, which is expected to be watched by a global television audience of half a billion, saying: "Barcelona's advantage is the fact that they've been playing together for much longer and they know each other perfectly well. They were lucky to be rewarded for their efforts with three titles last year and that may make people believe everything is easy for them. But each team have their own style. We may be better than them in attack and at counter-attacking. They may be better in midfield because they have players that truly make a difference in that part of the pitch."

But the final word goes to Xavi. "Both teams have something to lose because if you do lose a Clasico it affects you," he said. "Though we both have much to lose, we also both have much to win." amitten@thenational.ae Barcelona v Real Madrid, KO 10pm, Aljazeera Sport + 3