Real Madrid vs Barcelona: Too big to fall

Barcelona's Lionel Messi in action with Real Valladolid's Ruben Alcaraz. REUTERS/FILE
It does not require a great leap of the imagination to envision the final few weeks of the season playing out like this:

Atlético Madrid, shredded by nerves and running on fumes, surrenders its place at the summit of La Liga. Barcelona, restored and unbeaten since the turn of the year, supplants Diego Simeone’s team, reclaiming its crown.

At the same time, Real Madrid, the familiar scent of European glory in its nostrils, breezes past Liverpool and edges Chelsea to win a place in the Champions League final. Real Madrid would, by most measures, be the underdog in Istanbul. Manchester City and Bayern Munich, certainly, are more coherent, more complete teams. Even Paris St.-Germain, its mission for revenge fuelled by the brilliance of Kylian Mbappé, has more star power, more forward momentum, as it proved so thrillingly on Wednesday night in Munich.

But it is Real Madrid, and it is the Champions League, and these things do not necessarily conform to logic. It and Barcelona, the twin, repelling poles of the Clásico, each may be no more than seven weeks from glory. Both have spent much of this campaign in what looked like free fall. It is hardly inconceivable that, in a few weeks, they will have come to rest, still at the pinnacle.

That does not mean that the perception was an illusion. Barcelona’s financial strife is alarmingly real, even after the election of a new president. Its salary commitments are still greater than those of any other team. Its squad is still aging. It has still frittered away hundreds of millions of dollars in the transfer market. It has still squandered its legacy, still alienated the greatest star in its history, still lost sight of itself.

Real Madrid’s situation is less perilous, but here, too, are the telltale signs of complacency and endemic drift. Its team is starting to creak with age. Its policy of paying premium fees for prodigious young talents — often with only a smattering of senior games under their belts — has not yet yielded the fruit the club imagined.

Its payroll, too, is littered with unwanted high-earners; Real Madrid’s finances have been stretched by the revamp of the Santiago Bernabéu that has forced it to play home games at its training facility for a year; its belief that it can sign both Erling Haaland and Mbappé over the next two summers seems fanciful at best and faintly hubristic at worst. Lulled by glamour and success, Real Madrid has allowed itself to be transformed into the personal fief of its president, Florentino Pérez.

All of those issues were not imagined by a muckraking, scurrilous news media; they are not proof of some sweeping anti-Barcelona and yet somehow also anti-Madrid conspiracy. They are real, and they all manifest on Saturday, when the clubs will meet on the outskirts of the Spanish capital for the second Clásico of the season.

When, 50 years from now, sports historians come to look back on European football’s imperial phase, examining how it became what David Goldblatt has described as the single greatest cultural phenomenon of the modern era, they could do worse than to start with those 18 days in 2011 when Real and Barcelona played one another four times.

Even from the relatively shallow vantage point of 2021, those 2 1/2 weeks have the air of a seed and a flower, a dawn and a dusk and the midday sun. It was, in the first decade of the 21st century, what football had been building toward. It would be what football, in the second decade of the 21st century, would measure everything against.

The Clásico was not only the meeting of football’s two great powers or the world’s two best teams. It was also the clash of its two brightest stars, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the supernova game. It was a battle of wills and a battle of minds: José Mourinho against Pep Guardiola, defence against attack, destruction against creation, darkness against light.

These were days when football held its breath.

It is fitting, a decade later, that the most materially impactful Clásico of the last few years will take place on Saturday night in the Éstadio Alfredo Di Stéfano, rather than the Bernabéu. It is a reduced circumstance for a diminished game.

The stakes are high. The winner will take prime position to dislodge Atlético Madrid from the summit of La Liga. The loser, as is the case whenever these two meet, will suddenly be flirting with crisis. It is, without question, the biggest game of the weekend. It is not, though, the centrepiece of the European season as once it was, the fixture that makes the world stand still.

In part, that is because of the decline of the teams themselves. Barcelona and Real Madrid are no longer the two best teams on the planet. That honour, currently, falls somewhere between Manchester and Munich. It would be possible to build an argument that neither Spanish giant is, at this moment, in the top five.

There is still Messi, of course, but there is no Ronaldo, no Xavi, no Andrés Iniesta, no Xabi Alonso. Both teams are in the throes of (reluctant) generational change, works in various stages of progress. The quality — aesthetic and technical — will not be as high as it was on Wednesday night, when PSG stormed the Allianz Arena.

But that is also because of the broader decline of La Liga. Spain has long since vacated its position of primacy. France is the world champion, and the most prodigious producer of players. Germany — and, to some extent, the city of Leeds — is the wellspring of ideas. England is home to its finest league. Spain has lost its place at the vanguard.

And yet, it is not difficult to envision the season ending with celebrations on Las Ramblas and at the Plaza de Cibeles, with Barcelona anointed kings of Spain and Real Madrid restored to its traditional status as Rey de Copas.

That such a denouement is possible is testament, first, to our tendency to assume that decline — football as a whole, in fact — runs in straight lines, to reverse-engineer an explanation for every event. If Barcelona wins a championship, rumours of its demise must have been greatly exaggerated. If Real Madrid wins the Champions League, its methods must work.

It does not always, if ever, work like that. Sometimes things happen. Sometimes stars align. Not everything has a deeper meaning, and not every success illustrates some broader truth. Sometimes Liverpool wins the Champions League with Djimi Traoré at left back. Sometimes Croatia gets a golden generation. Had Real Madrid been paired with Manchester City, rather than Liverpool, in the Champions League quarterfinals this week, its almost mystical relationship with the European Cup would not seem quite so potent.

That Barcelona and Real Madrid can be so close to the summit after a season spent at the depths is also a reminder that how far, and how fast, you fall is only one part of the equation. The other is where you are coming from.

Between them, Barcelona and Madrid account for seven of the last 14 Champions League titles. They were football’s animating force for more than a decade. Each, at different times in that period, reached heights that few teams have reached. Both remain fabulously wealthy, in terms of talent and in terms of revenue. Both retain many of the players who helped them to touch the sky. Their talent may have waned, but it has not evaporated.

Eras do not end overnight. History does not run in a straight line. The Clásico of 2021 will be a shadow of the Clásicos of 2011. That Real Madrid and Barcelona have fallen is not in question. But it should be no surprise that there might yet be glory awaiting one, or both of them. They did, after all, have quite a long way to fall.


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