Undoubtedly the pick of this weekend’s La Liga matches will take place at the Camp Nou on Saturday, as Real Madrid come to town knowing that a win will take them level on points with bitter rivals Barcelona.
With global audience figures in the region of 400m, El Clasico holds a sense of lustre for football fans like few others. And yet, in the not too distant past, the Champions League ties between these two sides had neutrals turning off their TVs in disgust. Some of the skulduggery on display in that 2011 semi-final was evidence for some that the rivalry was threatening to spill over into something altogether more serious.
Later that year, Jose Mourinho infamously poked the eye of Tito Vilanova, an event which seems to have brought a belated sense of responsibility to some of the actors involved in this charged rivalry.
As is his wont, Mourinho became the pantomime villain of the piece, and it is fair to say that in those days, few neutrals were siding with Los Blancos. This was the era when Barca’s tiki-taka was at its most devastating – Pep Guardiola’s side were in the process of sweeping all before them, redefining perceptions of the game’s tactical fabric along the way.
Both managers have since departed the scene, and with them went, perhaps, some of the antipathy so visibly prevalent from 2010 to 2012. That said, this fixture always has the potential to erupt.
The Santiago Bernabeu has at times felt like a hornet’s nest of discontent this season. Unconvincing results and performances have seen chants of ‘Jose Mourinho’ return from a certain faction of the home support. Of course, with Madrid, it is often impossible to discern which faction is representing whom. Is it the pro Mourinho faction? The pro Casillas faction? The pro Florentino faction? The pro Morata faction?
And yet, for all the apparent dysfunction within the Real family, successive wins for Carlo Ancelotti’s side have brought about a renewed sense of hope. Madrid’s performance against Juventus seemed to represent something of a breakthrough. While it was hardly a flawless performance, Los Blancos’ sense of focus and purpose gave an indication that the Italian’s ideas may finally be starting to take root. A win on Saturday would represent an unlikely turnaround given where they found themselves a couple of weeks ago.
For their part, Barca enter this game on the back of successive draws. Despite their near impeccable record in the League, there is the sense that they are still finding their way under Tata Martino. They are club whose immaculate sheen has undoubtedly been tarnished over the past 18 months, not least because of the manner in which they were dismantled by Bayern Munich last season.
The departure of Eric Abidal felt like a particularly tasteless episode, while Tito Vilanova’s illness also became the subject for ugly rapprochement between Guardiola and the Barca board. Other off-field issues also continue to linger in the background.
And still, Barca have managed to retain their status as the team to beat – in Spain at least and even while the off-field structures that laid the foundations for success have cracked apart. This Saturday though, Real Madrid may just get a sniff of blood in Catalan air.
Follow Sean Duffy on Twitter: @seanied8