It might not have felt much like a Clasico, played in the modest surroundings of the 6,000-capacity Estadio Alfredo di Stefano at Real Madrid’s training ground on the outskirts of the Spanish capital, but what was produced on the pitch, sized to the exact dimensions of the Santiago Bernabeu playing surface, was of familiar quality.
This fixture has lost some of its shimmer in recent times, especially since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo from Real Madrid in 2018, and with no supporters in the stands this particular encounter lacked the customary colour and atmosphere that comes as part of the Clasico experience.
Nonetheless, the entertainment served up by these two rivals proved that there is still no fixture in club football as compelling as this one. Watched by millions around the world, Barcelona and Real Madrid reasserted El Clasico’s place as the European game’s headline act.
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Even by the usual standard of this game, this was one of the better Clasicos in recent memory. With top spot in the La Liga table on the line, there was an intensity and tempo to the play of both teams from the start with Real Madrid causing all sorts of problems on the rapid counter attack. They were exhilarating to watch on the charge.
Barca might have trailed 2-0 after only 28 minutes, but at no point did it feel as if Real Madrid had the points in the bag. Ronald Koeman got his defensive structure wrong, something he changed with the introduction of Antoine Griezmann at half time, but the Catalans always carried an attacking threat.
Every box was ticked by this encounter. There were excellent goals, close calls, fightbacks, penalty claims and even complaints over the amount of stoppage time added at the end of the match. The only thing that prevented it from being the archetypal Clasico was the stadium it was played in.
These two rivals are in the midst of a generational transition with Koeman and Zinedine Zidane both merging experience with youth. Barcelona and Real Madrid both have their sights set on what the future might bring, with the former recently electing a new (old) president and the former all but rebuilding their stadium.
Here is where the biggest difference between Saturday’s Clasico and the Clasicos of the past can be found. While these fixtures were once a demonstration of strength, they are now just as much about vulnerability. Neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid can currently claim to be the epitome of footballing brilliance as they used to be.
In terms of quality on the pitch, games between Liverpool and Manchester City may offer more, but they don’t carry the cultural, political and historical importance of El Clasico. Not even close. Liverpool v Manchester United fixtures might have that, but they tend to be stodgy, forgettable affairs.
Of course, it helps that Barcelona and Real Madrid are almost always competing for honours against each other. Even this season, when it appeared Atletico Madrid were running away with things at the top of La Liga, the two rivals have ended up in a race to the finish for the Spanish title. Saturday’s result means there is just a single point between the three sides (although Atleti still have a game in-hand against Real Betis on Sunday).
A new generation is taking fixtures between Barca and Real Madrid to new places. The likes of Pedri, Vinicius Junior, Ansu Fati, Fede Valverde will define this game for years to come and Saturday night’s clash was a taste of this. The world no longer stops to watch El Clasico as was the case a few years ago, but there’s still no fixture in football that draws the eye like it.
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