Outside the Santiago Bernabeu the stalls were all selling binoculars. The match didn’t matter. The reason they had come was for what was going to happen beforehand. It was May 2008 and Barcelona had to give Los Blancos a ‘Guard of Honour’. Some only came to see the Catalans applaud their heroes on to the pitch.
What happened a year after that match, which finished 4-1 to Los Blancos is history. Pep Guardiola came and Barca became one of the best sides the world had ever seen. Suddenly the type of joy that had surrounded that day was replaced by panic every time El Clasico appeared on the horizon.
After a disastrous 6-2 loss at home to Pep’s trailblazers a year on from the title celebrations, Real Madrid needed to restore pride. Barca winning the 2009 treble had been a devastating blow to the club. Jose Mourinho had then been called in to knock Barca down a peg or two but he was struggling to do so. A devastating 5-0 loss in the Camp Nou seemed to suggest that Barca looked forward to the tie whilst their opponents dreaded it. Real Madrid lost their edge and their focus when they lined up against their bitter rivals. Los Vikingos did win the Copa del Rey in 2011 and it looked like Mourinho had got it right and that Barca had been knocked off their perch but the following season things were back to normal.
In the 2011-12 season things had calmed down since the war of words the previous season and Mourinho poking Tito Vilanova in the eye in the Supercopa de Espana. Now football on the pitch was doing the talking and it was Barca who were on everyone’s tongue. When the Catalans won the first El Clasico things changed for Real Madrid. AS and Marca who had always found excuses for defeats suddenly ran out of patience and lambasted Mourinho and his players. Fans booed players and even Ronaldo was on the receiving end. Catalan Press claimed the Copa win was a ‘fluke’. It would turn out not to be.
Little by little Real Madrid have since recovered. They figured out how to play the Catalans by closing them down and giving them no space. They went to the Camp Nou, ahead in the League and won. They have now gone three La Liga ties unbeaten. They may have lost in the 2011-12 season in the Copa del Rey but Mourinho played it down, saying the club had better trophies to chase. Last season Real Madrid drew in Catalonia and won at home, with practically a B team. The fear was gone. Where once players had the look of dread in their eyes, recently there has been a determination and a sense of belief.
This Saturday we will enter a new era. Mourinho, Pep and Tito are gone and Tata Martino and Carlo Ancelotti will be in charge of their first Clasico. Also for the first time in a long while, the result of this game affects another side. The right results this weekend could see Atletico Madrid go top. Once again El Clasico is all about the football, the way it should be.