Thursday, March 31, 2016

An Odd Clasico

Could this be Cristiano Ronaldo's final Clasico?
By Justin Sherman (@JShermOfficial)

Sitting here, just a mere three days from one of the world’s biggest games, and something feels off.

That burning sensation of anticipation at the depths of my core? Gone.

Getting my jersey ironed and ready? Too lazy.  (Ed. Note- You iron your jersey? That's commitment)

Prepping my sangria and spirits list? Ok, well that’s still alive and well.

I apologize, but you’ll have to excuse me and my sullen mood entering this weekend. Since the disaster last summer that was Iker Casilla’s exit and the fifth choice hire of Rafa Benitez, Real Madrid fans have been in a haze.

This season has never felt quite right, and the blame to go around is so vast that the resident pinata changes by the week. The midseason coaching change that saw Zinedine Zidane replace Benitez has been good, but not extraordinary. To his credit, Zidane has made subtle tweaks to the team's tactics that have paid dividends.

Upon replacing Benitez, Zidane's first move was to abandon his predecessor's plan to reshape Madrid's attack and return to what he knew from his time spent as assistant to Carlo Ancelotti: The "BBC" leading a 4-3-3; Cristiano Ronaldo on the left, Gareth Bale on the right, Karim Benzema down the middle. Although injuries have plagued the trio during much of his tenure, Madrid's aggregate score with the BBC intact under Zidane is 14-1.

Under Benitez, the use of a 4-2-3-1 with Bale used through the middle never quite worked out, with too often the system lacking clarity and definition. Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale always seemed to inhabit the same space, causing a logjam with players unsure of how to attack.

Since their defeat to Atletico in the Madrid Derby, Zidane has tinkered with the lineup as well. The physical Casemiro has been reintroduced into the deep lying midfield role to provide a defensive mindset that trends away from the playmaker-heavy system, adding a bruteness, and a more traditional sense of systematic balance.

Unfortunately, these changes haven’t quite reflected in the standings.

Barcelona comes into this match with a near insurmountable 10-point lead in the table over their arch rivals. It’s been that way for practically three months now, with the Liga trophy being paraded in the Plaza Catalunya now all but a certainty. A victory for Barcelona will just further cement the inevitable, while Madrid are just hoping to build confidence for the rocky terrain that awaits in the Champions League.

39 matches have gone by since Barca last tasted defeat, a streak so long that when it began I was a year younger, had one fewer grey hair, and a lot more money, pre-Las Vegas trip (thanks, Anthony).

Their front line of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez has been utterly devastating. They have combined to score 69 goals in the league, often in such a ridiculous fashion that you were forced to question whether it was La Liga you were watching, or the Monstars from Space Jam.

Madridistas had a front row ticket to this demolition derby back in November, when Barca won 4-0 at the Bernabeu without so much as breaking a sweat. Now Madrid must travel to Catalunya, where Barcelona sport an unblemished win/loss record at the Camp Nou this season.

As usual, this edition of El Clasico is ripe with side plots, none bigger than the planned tribute to legendary player/coach Johan Cruyff. The Dutchman passed away at the age of 68 last Thursday after a short battle with lung cancer. This will be the first match at the Camp Nou since, with all seven of Barcelona’s living presidents set to put their differences aside and attend the game.

Emotions will be running high for Barcelona’s fans and players alike, but so will the determination to make their old legend proud in doing the double over their mortal enemy. Cruyff’s influence is still felt to this day, with his hard pressing and positional interchange philosophy of  “total football” embedded in Barcelona’s culture. Expect Madrid’s players to feel the effects as well, as Cruyff was a hero of many --especially Luka Modric-- so soccer should be the winner with everyone trying to produce a spectacle that would do the great man justice.

The type of performance Zidane’s men put forth could go a long way in determining his future with the club. Fans were split on his initial appointment, as some viewed him as the perfect calming influence to a locker room with oversized egos, while many others saw the Frenchmen as an inexperienced and underqualified manager for a role of this stature.

While results have been mostly positive, it's true that if he loses badly it will give ammunition to those at Madrid who feel he is not up to it. What really counts, however, is the Champions League. Win that, and he will be forgiven for almost anything on Saturday, especially if he beats Barca in the European Cup final.

Mike Tyson once so eloquently stated that “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Real Madrid found this out the hard way back in November, resembling Trevor Berbick’s futile attempts to regain his legs after that historic knockdown.

There’s no doubt that, come Saturday, that punch will be thrown, but the hope for Madridistas and Zidane is that, this time, Arturo Gatti shows up.

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