Clasico takes special meaning
LONDON — With due respect to the European Championship play-off matches this week, Saturday’s El Clasico in Madrid will be the first truly global sporting event to be staged since the horrific murders in Paris on Friday night last week.
Inescapably, the first important victory which can be won at the Bernabeu is that sport can actually help restore some societal values and show that we will not be cowed by the cowards, the despots and the deluded; that everyone can go to one of the world’s great footballing occasions and return from the match safely.
By the kick-off it will have been just over a week since the atrocities in the French capital, millions of words and many more millions of doubts and fears will have resulted from a barbaric act of war against innocent civilians.
Paris, for many of the 85000 fans who will be in the Bernabeu, is a deeply significant place — as is the Stade de France.
In other circumstances, Real Madrid pair Toni Kroos and Karim Benzema, along with Barcelona’s Jeremy Mathieu, would have been playing in the France-germany friendly on Friday when those terrorist atrocities occurred.
Zinedine Zidane, now coach of Madrid Castilla (Real’s reserve team), won the World Cup for Les Bleus on that very turf alongside Didier Deschamps, his friend who was in charge of the French team playing Germany.
In football terms, it was also already a hallowed spot for Andres Iniesta, who won his first Champions League Final there in 2006.
All of their minds will be drawn to Paris — from the instant they understood what happened there right up until competitive instincts kick in on Saturday evening.
As for Rafa Varane — he played the full 90 minutes while, as it transpired, bombs were fatally detonating around the outside of the arena. How he will feel now or in the future ... heaven only knows.
It is to be hoped that El Clasico, often a mean-spirited, vindictive occasion, inspires everyone there to unite.
To make a statement which honours the dead and shows humanity, defiance and dignity in bewildering circumstances.
The game can only be a tiny part on the patchwork of reactions which send out a message that ‘we are not afraid’ but perhaps it’s not an insignificant occasion.
However, once the remembrance for those who were killed has passed, once the security services have done their job to the best of their ability an intriguing match remains.
In football terms at least, you can expect the remainder of this week to be very heavily focused on arguably the world’s greatest player, Lional Messi — although Cristiano Ronaldo would disagree of that description.
Messi wasn’t in Buenos Aires’ rain-soaked Estadio Monumental on Friday night into Saturday morning as Neymar, Dani Alves and Javier Mascherano slugged it out in the South American Clasico of Argentina versus Brazil, which ended 1-1.
That is because the knee-ligament injury Barca’s star suffered at the end of September was much too serious for Messi — to his vast disappointment — to even contemplate helping Argentina’s horribly faltering attempt to qualify for the next World Cup.
In fact, there should not really have been a chance of Barcelona’s all-time leading scorer — and the leading scorer in the history of El Clasico — being fit in time for Saturday night.
Astonishingly, though, there is now a slight chance he will take some part in the game. Like the chink of light at the end of a dark tunnel which can lead to salvation, it is suddenly there.
Messi, rumour has it, has been upgrading his training work beyond simply running and getting touches on the ball to starting to participate in five-a-side training games during the international break.
Until his reaction to full-contact training is assessed, it’s simply guesswork on behalf of the Catalan media, who have begun to state that Messi will be good for half an hour against Madrid.
For Luis Enrique, facing his second El Clasico at the Bernabeu as a former Madrid, exBarcelona player and the current Nou Camp manager, the complications of how to handle the Messi situation are almost equally matched by those facing him over the players who actually played in the ArgentinaBrazil clash in Buenos Aires.
Torrential rain on Thursday forced the game to be played a day late, so his players performed on a strength-sapping pitch and had 24 hours less recovery time before their midweek international tests against Peru and Colombia. These factors count.
What with the jetlag of a transatlantic flight and the physiological tiredness of high pressure international matches on the other side of the planet, it is fair to say Mascherano, Neymar and Alves — guaranteed starters in normal circumstances — face a huge challenge to cope with the mental and physical intensity of a match against their bitter rivals from Madrid. Such is life at the top. For Rafa Benitez, booed by Real Madrid fans recently and openly criticised by some of his players — most notably Colombian star James Rodriguez — and three points behind the reigning champions, there are a range of challenges, too.
Benzema’s behaviour in the case of former French international team-mate Mathieu Valbuena being blackmailed is under criminal investigation and has been the subject of unremitting media coverage in France and Spain since the story broke.
In footballing terms, Benzema’s importance to Real’s chances of victory against Barcelona is an absolute no-brainer.
Not only does Ronaldo play with vastly more danger and efficacy when paired with the French striker, Benzema’s performances have produced a torrent of goals and assists in games against Barcelona.
However, with those extremely serious criminal proceedings going on around him, is he in fit shape to perform in the way he would be needed to? A difficult and sensitive call for an under-pressure manager to make.
Even if treble-holders Barca win at the Bernabeu — something they have done regularly over the last six years — a six-point lead would not be definitive at this stage of the season. Handy all the same, though.
Barcelona striker Luis Suarez Madrid Attacking midfielder JAMES Rodriguez
Barcelona Attacker Neymar real MADRID winger Gareth BALE