Can you remember football before Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo? It was a more quant time when scoring 20 goals in a season was deemed to be the mark of a world class forward, when netting more than 50 goals in a single campaign was only accomplished by FIFA gamers playing at too easy a level.
Messi and Ronaldo warped everything, including a rivalry which was already one of the fiercest, most storied in world football. Indeed, El Clasico has long been a defining contest, a rivalry that was about politics and identity just as much as it was sport. But the age of Messi, the best player in Barcelona’s history, and Ronaldo, the best player in Real Madrid’s history, took the fixture to new heights.
Neither player will on the pitch when Barcelona and Real Madrid face each other at Camp Nou this weekend, though. Of course, Ronaldo made the move to Juventus in the summer, but there will be no Messi either on Sunday, with the Argentinean sidelined with a fractured arm. It will be the first time since 2007 that a Clasico has been played without at least one of the pair.
This is just one of the reasons this weekend’s match will be just that little bit less special than has become the norm in recent years. Both Barcelona and Real Madrid have started the form in less than impressive form, with the latter in particular struggling under Julen Lopetegui, whose tenure in charge of the capital club could be a very short one if recent reports about his future employment are to be believed.
In terms of audience and general interest across the globe, only the Champions League final compares to Barcelona v Real Madrid in the club game. The last decade has seen El Clasico raise its profile above that of other European rivalries – see Liverpool v Manchester United, AC Milan v Inter, Celtic v Rangers – and that is in no small part down to the impact made by Messi and Ronaldo. At the rivalry’s peak, El Clasico became something of a personal duel between the two best players in the game.
But with Ronaldo already gone and Messi entering the twilight of his career, the rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid must move into a new age. That era, despite Messi’s continued place at the top of the Barca tree, will effectively start on Sunday. We will be afforded a glimpse of what El Clasico will be like in the post-Messi and Ronaldo era.
It might not be so bad. Both Barcelona and Real Madrid are in the midst of a transition, but this is a rivalry packed with more world class talent than any other. In the likes of Marco Asensio, Gareth Bale, Isco, Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos, Real still boast some of the best players on the planet, even after Ronaldo’s departure. Barcelona are in a similar position without Messi, with Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele, Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez all capable of stepping up in his absence.
Purists might argue that a Clasico without Messi and Ronaldo will push the football and the true nature of the rivalry to the fore once again. There have been times over the years at which the personal duel between the two players, the two greatest of their generation and possibly of all time, has grown tedious, verging on childish.
What we will get on Sunday, therefore, is a purer manifestation of the rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid, two clubs who define themselves in very different ways. There is a lot on the line, with both sides stuttering in the start to their respective La Liga campaigns. Just as it has always been, it will be a spectacle. For that, Messi and Ronaldo aren’t necessarily required.
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