All eyes focused on clásico series
For the first time ever, Barcelona and Real meet four times in an 18-day span
The League, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League are all at stake
It will be fascinating to see the varied tactics for each game of the series
Here we go, then. Barcelona and Real's very own World Series starts now, the most exciting run of games in living memory or definitive and depressing proof that no one else in Spain matters -- great clubs, superb teams and talented players, relegated to an irrelevance, in the shadow of two footballing behemoths. For two weeks, at least.
These promise to be two and a half weeks of merciless hype, of opportunism, of myopia and provocation, of faux-outrage and point-scoring, aimed at the complete obliteration of each other. And of everybody else. Or perhaps, for them, it's a relief. "The more Madrid and Barcelona play each other, the more the rest of us can get on with our work in peace," said Athletic Bilbao coach Joaquín Caparrós.
One thing's for certain: they could hardly play each other more. Barring a miracle, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid will face each other four times in 18 days and with every single trophy in play: league, Copa del Rey and Champions League. They have played each other in Europe twice before -- Madrid winning both -- but nothing like this has ever happened.
On Saturday, they face each other in the league at the Santiago Bernabéu. On Wednesday they face each other in the Copa del Rey final at Mestalla. And in the following two weeks they face each other in the Champions league semifinals at the Santiago Bernabéu and the Camp Nou. Or do they? On Saturday, do they in fact face each other in the league, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League? Rather than a simple league game, is it just the first quarter of a game that decides everything? Just the first chapter in a sensational saga.
On the face of it, Saturday's game appears the least important of them all. After all, even if they lose, Barcelona will probably still win the league title: assuming it does not lose by more than 5-0, it would still have a five-point lead which is effectively a six-point lead (given head-to-head tiebreakers) at the top of the table, with just six games to go. But could the reverse actually be true? Could Saturday's game actually be the most important of the series? Could that be exactly the point? That these are not four games but a series, in which every game affects every other?
In situations like this when two teams face each other a handful of times over a handful of days in different competitions, the hypothetical is inevitable: some variation on the "if someone offered you the Copa del Rey final in return for losing the league game, you'd take it" theme. But not only does it not work like that, not only would Real Madrid and Barcelona never sign a pact (mind you, Hitler and Stalin did), the exact opposite might be true. Rather than "you take this, I take that," could this be one winner takes it all?
Johan Cruyff, the former Barcelona player and coach, its ideologue, insisted Monday that in order to take it all Barcelona does not need to win every game: it merely needs to win the second and the fourth -- the Copa del Rey final and the Champions League semifinal second leg. Put simply, he is quite right. Just as Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan only won once in four against Barcelona last season, yet still reached the Champions League final instead of Barça.
But can Barcelona win the second and fourth without winning the first and the third? Is winning the second and the fourth harder if you lose the other two? Could it even be easier? Is there some mileage in focusing effort and soccer in certain matches? As Cruyff insisted, Barcelona must compete in every game, it must be able to assimilate the result from every match as it prepares for the next. And the same goes for Real Madrid. Especially as it will all end with the most important game of all, a culmination of clashes until it reaches a climax: the Champions League. Even if honors are shared -- a Cup here, a league there -- at the end of this, only one team will be standing. Only one will feel satisfied.
One of the fascinating thing about this series of games is that question of interdependence, the extent to which every game is conditioned by every other game. Emotionally, physically, tactically. How much does every game affect the next? Will there be trump cards that are held back, ready to be played at certain times, rather than wasted on one match? All the questions that are asked before any clásico are multiplied now. And, at the risk of reading too much into it, at going too far, there are many more. Psychologically, the intrigue, is extraordinary. The strategy is seductive. The mental battle could be mesmerizing, the pressure intense.
How different will each game be? And how different will each game become as a result of the one before -- will plans change as results and expectations do? The question begs to be asked: to what extent is the approach to each game is conditioned by the next? When rotations are employed, that question is always valid: now it becomes more pertinent than ever before. Does Guardiola trust the fact that, on the face of it, his starting XI is stronger? Does Mourinho take comfort in a bigger and better squad? Will he rotate within these games?
The first game looks the least relevant. Is it in fact, the most? The game that sets a tone for the whole series? One Barcelona player recently admitted that he thinks Madrid is under huge mental pressure because it has now lost five consecutive clásicos and was defeated 5-0 in November. How much greater that pressure must be with four in two weeks, and yet how much quicker it offers a chance for redemption. Meanwhile, if Madrid breaks that run in the first game, does it break it for all the rest? To use the Spanish phrase, would that mean the pressure catching the Puente aéreo, the flight that connects Spain's two biggest cities? How easy will the teams find it to assimilate defeats and draws as they prepare for the next match?
It may be counterintuitive but it appears impossible to treat these games in isolation. You wonder if both teams have done some basic planning for all four games or if the approach will be modified as the matches go by. It is harder to get your head around these clashes than any other clásico precisely because they all come together, because it is a series. To what extent do both managers believe that the league title, for all the public declarations to the contrary, is decided? And does that change the approach at the Bernabéu?
Will tactics at the Bernabéu alter because of the Cup final four days later? Will the two teams be playing two games at once? Or four games, even? How can they isolate themselves from their past and their future to focus on their present? Will they reveal their cards or hide aces up their sleeves? Can they? After all, they know each other so well. How much capacity for surprise is there? Who has greater variety? Who can shuffle their side more? Is that even beneficial? Will they defend differently, to keep each other guessing? Will the attack be modified? Will, say, Ronaldo play left on Saturday and right on Tuesday? Will the league game be a testing ground for the next three?
To put it in very basic, if Neanderthal terms: Barcelona has two center backs out, Eric Abidal and Carles Puyol. Only Piqué is left. Will Madrid target him in the hope of removing him from the Copa del Rey final? Will it try to bully Messi -- not so much to keep him out of the league clásico but to get him out of the Champions league clásico or the final of the Copa del Rey? Will Barcelona try to rough up Cristiano Ronaldo, provoking him into something that would cost Madrid not just for this game but the next too? Will Barcelona try that bit harder to tug on the referee's card-waving arm? Will it have looked at the Madrid players a solitary yellow from a ban and taken note?
The cliché talks of taking each game as it comes. It has never been true: everyone looks ahead. But this time, more than any other time, it is an immense lie. It is utterly impossible. How could it be otherwise? What is going on inside the tortured minds of the two coaches and their players? We have never seen anything quite like it; a run of games so mind-bending, so all-encompassing. This may be four different matches, three different competitions and two different teams, but it feels like just one, truly epic clash.