Neymar, Bale and the El Clasico that was an opportunity
Since Cristiano Ronaldo’s semi-inevitable arrival in Spain in 2009, Real Madrid’s games against Barcelona have formed a sturdy centre at the heart of the football world.
El Clasico has reliably meant three things for the last six or so years. It’s meant the best two teams in the world are playing each other, the best two players, in Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, are being matched against each other, and everyone else is sitting quietly, watching to see which combination of those four contenders comes out on top.
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This simple, repetitive formula brought with it a reassuring solidity. In uncertain times, you always knew what you were going to get with El Clasico, and at the absolute peak of its powers, during the Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho years, the game seemed to be playing out almost constantly. If Barca and Real weren’t playing in the league they’d be playing in Europe; if they weren’t playing in Europe they’d be playing in the cup; if they weren’t playing in the cup they’d be playing in the Supercup. It was there whenever you needed it; sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes indifferent as a spectacle, but always wholeheartedly present and correct.
Of late this position has begun to change.
Looking ahead to the first Clasico of this season on Saturday, both teams currently appear somewhat diminished when pushed up against their older incarnations. Two less fashionable managers are in place in the form of Rafael Benitez, with his air of an administrator who has snuck onto the bench before the real manager comes out, and Luis Enrique, a man surrounded by the unfairly lingering suspicion that the players are really in charge. Results are also now less intimidating than they once were—15 points have been dropped already between the two teams in the league this season, from 66 available, which still represents utter dominance, but of a lesser kind. And even the regularity of the meet-ups has fallen away, with both teams winning marginally less and thus meeting up marginally less often in the latter stages of competitions.
These are strong markers of something different from what went before, something less sturdy. But they aren’t the biggest markers of change. There’s something else too. Dramatically, Messi and Ronaldo’s unquestioned authority as the world’s “best two” players, the foundation of El Clasico’s assumed supremacy has, in recent weeks, had a few layers of question-proof armour removed from it. For the first time, there is the idea of asking questions about them, if not the reality. The possibility has somehow emerged that Ronaldo and Messi will not go on forever.
This has been allowed to happen because Messi is injured, as you may have heard. This is no real failing on his part, but your status can still change even when you don’t, and while he’s been out he’s watched his team rise to the top of La Liga and qualify comfortably for the Champions League knockout stages, with his notional subordinates up front, Neymar and Luis Suarez, capturing the kind of form that only the word “magical” really does justice to.
So Messi hasn’t got worse. That’s not what this means. But the idea of a post-Messi Barca has become marginally less worrying for anyone involved in the transition. He’s still untouchable, but he’s incrementally less so.
And Ronaldo has experienced the same shift in thinking around him, but for a reason that will probably be more personally distressing. He’s been playing, and playing well, but he just hasn’t been playing quite as utterly unbelievably well as he was before. And at the same time Real, for better or worse, seems less reliant on him this season than at any time since he arrived there. Thirteen goals in 15 games is not the time to signal the end of an era, by any means, but it may signal the time to start considering the beginning of a prolonged end.
If that premise isn’t too outrageous—and even if it is—then El Clasico has already changed. It’s instantly not the same. No more is it necessarily the place for simple, secure guarantees. Real and Barca are not automatically the best two teams in the world any more— the loser will be placed behind Bayern Munich and the winner might be too—and the two best players in the world no longer feel quite so permanently ensconced in either of those positions.
Collectively that all means that for the first time in six years, we have a Clasico that feels less about fixed facts and more about questions, doubt and, maybe most interestingly of all, opportunity.
There’s the opportunity for both teams to win and build a platform to reassert that they’re still the world’s best; there’s the opportunity for both managers to try and establish that they’re better than their profiles suggest; and more compellingly than any of that, there’s the opportunity for a group of players to compete for who gets to succeed Ronaldo and Messi in this newly-conceptualized, post-Ronaldo and Messi world.
It’s early days—the earliest of days, really—but the main contenders have already begun to emerge. Neymar and Suarez stand on the Barcelona side; Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez sit mercurially on the Real Madrid side. For all of them, Saturday’s game represents an opportunity to state a case—or at least extend the cases they have already begun to make—that they’re not the New Top Dog, by any means, but the Future New Top Dog.
Going into the game, the advantage is Neymar’s. He scored That Goal against Villarreal two weeks ago, leads the La Liga scoring charts with 11 goals in 11 games and, as described above, has gone the furthest to pushing a post-Messi agenda at Barcelona. A decent start. But no deal has been done yet. Barca fans jumping the gun and even describing Neymar as the next Ronaldinho have gone too early, forgetting, surely, that the Brazilian legend scored twice and received a standing ovation in one game at the Bernabeu—and Neymar doesn’t have a game like that on his CV quite yet, though it looks more than possible.
The point would be that nothing is decided yet. That’s the new difference. That’s the new Clasico. The certainty of the Messi-Ronaldo era is under threat, and the game we’ll see on Saturday will reflect that. Maybe Neymar will stand up and take the stage for himself, but maybe he won’t? Maybe Bale will instead? The new deal is that there is no deal. The sturdy centre couldn’t hold forever; an alternative Clasico will be played on Saturday, but that’s about all we know.
Ethan Dean-Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter