This Saturday evening Real Madrid and Barcelona will meet in Spain's capital for the second edition of this season's El Clasico, one of the biggest matches in the world.
Unlike previous seasons this late-season clash has a lot riding on it. The hosts are in third, three points behind league leaders Atletico Madrid. The visitors are sandwiched between the two sides from Madrid, one behind Atletico and two ahead of Real. There will be eight matches left after this weekend and in Spain with the head-to-head tiebreaker these games can become crucial.
Yet despite this it still can feel a little different. El Clasico seems less important and certainly less of a spectacle than in previous years. There are a number of reasons for that.
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Firstly, perhaps the most critical reason: there are far fewer compelling characters. Peak Clasico was defined by the Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola rivalry. Two combustible characters, whose dislike of each other grew with each passing match, it was perfect theatre.
Then you move on to the pitch. Just think of some of the names involved at that stage in time: Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Ricardo Carvalho, Marcelo, Xabi Alonso, Alvaro Arbeloa, Raul Albiol, Nacho, Victor Valdes, Dani Alves, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Neymar and Luis Suarez. Some of the best wind-up merchants in history all deeply invested in this tribal war. Of course any group needs a leader and this motley crew had the best to ever do it, Pepe. The supreme leader of football’s dark arts.

Pepe of Real Madrid CF during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second leg match between SSC Napoli and Real Madrid CF at Stadio San Paolo on March 7, 2017 in Naples, Italy

Image credit: Eurosport

Further, the matches in the late 2000s and early 2010s were played within the context of the eternal battle between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. It was a clash of cultures and philosophy: the natural, gifted academy product up against one of the most expensive, and hard-working, players of all-time.
All of this came together for the perfect melting pot. The two teams were dominant abroad as well as at home and it didn’t matter where you lived, you always knew when it was Clasico weekend. Some derbies can claim fiercer support - see the Superclasico or Old Firm - but no derby had the reach of El Clasico. People planned their day around it.
The obvious problem now Is that so many of those players have left. Some of the older guard remain but the needle just isn’t there. Players now are too media-trained and weirdly that seems to be translating to the pitch as well. Look you don’t necessarily want Pepe reincarnate but part of what made the Clasico so fun to watch was that it was full of needle, that’s gone now. By the same degree you don’t want a second Mourinho on the touchline poking people in the eye - but it feels too nice these days.

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And of course, the players simply aren't as good. At one stage you could argue that this game had the three best players in the world playing in it, at others maybe as many as six or seven of the best ten. It was a must-watch fixture by any metric.
The game has undoubtedly been hurt by the growth of the Bundesliga and the resurgence of Serie A, which was really struggling for relevance when Juventus were completely dominant. The omnipresence and bunker mentality of the Premier League doesn't help. Plenty of people out there would rather watch Newcastle hosting Aston Villa then turn on Spain's biggest game. It probably doesn't help that within the UK at least the game is tucked away on Premier Sports rather than Sky Sports, as it was in the past.

Messi en el Barcelona-Real Madrid en el Clásico

Image credit: Getty Images

Of course Barcelona and Real Madrid are still the dominant forces within Spanish football (and these games can be title race deciders) but their aura of invincibility has been well and truly tainted. Domestically and in Europe, the game just doesn’t have the same blockbuster feeling. The pair have each lost four times this season, sometimes they would only lose one or two across 38 matches. While Real look set for a Champions League semi-final, Barcelona have once again been knocked out. Prior to this season Real had exited at the last 16 stage in each of the past two campaigns.
And that’s probably because these teams aren’t the same blockbusters they once were. Real still haven’t really been the same since they sold Cristiano Ronaldo and although Barcelona still have Messi, they have also been a running joke for the past 12-18 months or so. The two giants used to boast the best squads in the world but now? Messi still remains perhaps the most gifted player of all time, but is he the form player right now? Erling Haaland, Kevin De Bruyne, Robert Lewandowski and Kylian Mbappe could all lay claims, and none of them play for Spain’s big two (yet).
Based on some of these arguments you could be forgiven for thinking that the Clasico was doomed when the old generation was replaced by the new, and when Mourinho and Guardiola moved on. But that’s not necessarily true. Some of the Clasicos between 2014 and 2017 were sublime. Luis Enrique brought fire to the touchline and his side brought swagger. Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane may not lose their temper outwardly but the steel within - and particularly within the latter’s team - brought an edge without any need for eye-poking or ankle-chopping.
It’s not as if there aren’t reasons to be excited about the fixture moving forward. Ansu Fati, Vinicius Jr and Pedri are three of the most exciting young players in the world and all of them are genuinely must-see footballers.

Barcelona's Spanish forward Ansu Fati celebrates after scoring a goal during the UEFA Champions League football match between FC Barcelona and Ferencvarosi TC at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on October 20, 2020.

Image credit: Getty Images

But it just feels different. Perhaps the heights of ten years ago can’t be repeated. Perhaps we should have enjoyed it more when we had it. Honestly maybe the explosion of the Premier League and/or social media have diluted it a bit. Still this should be a good game, the league table dictates that. Ultimately the magic of this fixture will never die, it’s just that some of the sheen has gone.
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