If any of the maths teachers I inadvertently tortured at Cults Academy are either still alive or not in the padded cell of a warm, caring asylum, driven there in foaming rage by my inability to assimilate basic numeric rules, they’ll be shocked rigid that this week’s column centres on numbers. Or at least statistics. Make of them what you will.
There are human stories aplenty ahead of the 83rd La Liga ‘Clasico’ at the Camp Nou when Barcelona entertain Real Madrid this Sunday night.
- Sergio Ramos is sticking long, sharp knitting needles in a wax effigy of Jose Mourinho while the Special One is affecting nonchalance.
- Carles ‘Robocop’ Puyol has suffered his third major injury of the season (fractured cheek, knee ligaments and now dislocated elbow)
- Gerard Pique’s ankle is (at the time of writing) making him look as stable as Bambi on ice skates.
This means Barca will take to the field at the Camp Nou with a pair of central defenders who are as quick on the turn as a ‘Thatcher at a Party Political Conference‘ (it’s a technical football term).
Good luck Javi Mascherano and Alex Song. Win, lose or draw, have two aspirins and a wee brandy waiting for you in the dressing room at full time.
We’ve had two classic Clasicos already
Already this term we’ve savoured two classic Clasicos. I defy anyone to argue that the explosive cocktail of brilliant football, errors, passion, noise, red cards and bookings wasn’t utterly seductive during Madrid’s 4-4 away-goals trophy win back in August.
Now, here we are again.
This first Clasico is weeks earlier than normal (more than two months earlier than last season) to allow the second league meeting to take place before the crucial moment in April. Then, both clubs want to be competing in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals but don’t want to be left looking like the cast of Dad’s Army (something which cost each of them dearly against Chelsea and Bayern Munich six months ago).
That, in itself, tells you something about the degree to which the vast economic attraction of success in Europe is beginning to edge ahead of the absolute need for domestic supremacy.
So it’s even more surprising that we hit this ‘early bird’ Clasico with Barcelona already enjoying an eight-point cushion over their rivals. Just 26 times in the 83 Liga Clasicos at Camp Nou have Barcelona kicked off with any points advantage at all over Madrid.
Barcelona on top in recent derbies
Of the last 17 Clasicos (2008-now), at either stadium, Barcelona have won 10 and only lost three. That’s a remarkable statistic which might point to pundits and punters alike backing the home side on Sunday – particularly given that a victory would put Barça a massive 11 points clear of, traditionally, their most dedicated rival for the Spanish title.
Whether establishing that double-figure gap as early as October could feasibly rule Madrid out of repeating their Liga win of last season (I’d say ‘yes’) remains to be seen. However, the only precedent for Barcelona taking an exact eight-point advantage into the first Clasico is from 1990/91. Then, the Catalans won 2-1 and did indeed go on to lift the title.
Nevertheless, what that positive win-ratio for Barça over the last 17 meetings hides is the equally remarkable fact that Los Blaugrana have regularly tied their hands behind their back before, often, going on to inflict damage on Los Blancos.
For example, on nine of those occasions Madrid have scored first. If you add the missed penalty by Samuel Eto’o in Pep Guardiola’s first ‘derbi’ against Madrid as Barcelona coach when the score was 0-0, it’s evidence that Barca like to do things the hard way.
Obviously there was a long spell when that didn’t matter. It became as if Barça either chose to, or needed to handicap themselves before kicking into action. Now things have changed. Even across the first few meetings when Jose Mourinho was in charge, Madrid mostly played Barcelona without any clear conviction that they were going to win… nor even to compete to win. That has been shrugged off, particularly at Camp Nou where there is no impetus for Real Madrid to make the play, where they can inflict their rapid transitions from either defence when a Barca attack breaks down or when they rob the ball in midfield, Madrid are once again clear in what they need to do and confident in their ability to do it.
If Los Blancos are allowed a lead these days, they are likely to convert it. Just at this moment they are patently only beginning to approach their very best. There has been a gradual return towards pace, precision, focus, aggression and efficacy but the champions spent some weeks a distance off their ‘A’ game.
For Barcelona Leo Messi is playing frustratingly deep and doesn’t look as crisp as usual. Messi has still produced 10 goals this season and has conjured his team’s last four assists. He’s different gravy. Equally, Andrés Iniesta, who is still to lose any match for Spain or Barcelona where he has scored, is only just back after injury – can he be a determining factor?
The balance of probabilities is that the pattern of the last five Camp Nou Clasicos offers a good guide.
Results of the last five Camp Nou games between Barcelona and Real Madrid
- 1-1 (Champions League)
- 3-2 (Supercopa)
- 2-2 (Copa)
- 1-2 (Liga)
- 3-2 (Supercopa)
Tight games, single goal winning margins. This game isn’t only called El Clasico, it’s also known as ‘El Derbi‘ and, like all great derby matches, totally remarkable things can happen.
But having said that, Ronaldo now has four goals in his last four Camp Nou visits. He also has two consecutive hat-tracks – against Deportivo La Coruna and Ajax. Ronaldo is beginning to re-establish the partnership he most enjoys at Real Madrid, with Karim Benzema.
I’d pick CR7 to score again, for there to be at least one red card, Barcelona not to lose and the league to go to them if they win. There, that’s that sorted. Now all you need to do is stock up on the beer, the chorizo nibbles, get your punt sorted, then relax and watch all of that come true word for word.
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based, British soccer writer whose passionate insight on La Liga can regularly be seen and heard on TV and radio. He also writes for the Paddy Power Blog on Spanish football. Follow Graham on twitter here.