By Kevin Koczwara
One Point separates Barcelona and Real Madrid in the La Liga table. A solitary point. That’s all. The closest competitor, Villarreal (7-3-2, 24 pts), sits seven points behind second place Barcelona (10-1-1, 31 pts). The two horse race for Spain’s top division title has begun, but the main event won’t begin until this weekend’s ‘el Clasico’ where the Catalans take on their arch enemies in white, Real Madrid (10-0-2, 32 pts).
It’s no surprise the giants of La Liga lead the way. Madrid and Barca’s payrolls outreach just about any other club in the world – except maybe Manchester City – and their opponents in La Liga have little to no chance keeping up with them.
Barcelona’s squad bolsters most or Spain’s World Cup winning starters, a few of their bench players, the best player in the World, Lionel Messi, plus a bench and youth system that top clubs around the world pluck talent from.
Argentina national team captain Javier Mascherano moved to the Camp Nou this summer from Liverpool only to find limited playing time behind some of the world’s top midfielders, any team in the world would take on the fiery midfielder right now, but he’d rather sit out and watch from Barcelona’s bench right now because its just too good to pass up playing for. Who wouldn’t want to play alongside Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, David Villa, Bojan, Carlos Puyol, Dani Alves, Pique and Pedro? I know I wouldn’t pass up that chance.
Real Madrid went on a splurge last summer setting two record signings. Kaka moved from AC Milan for a world record transfer fee of $89 million. Kaka held on to the record for most expensive player for a blink of the eye because Los Blancos signed Cristiano Ronaldo for $132 million from Manchester United, blowing the previous record out. Karim Benzema, Xabi Alonso topped off a number of the team’s top signings last summer.
This year Madrid swooped in and signed the best manager on the planet, Jose Mourinho, to lead its star laden squad. Mourinho took over after winning his second Champions League as a manager, and became one of three managers to win European soccer’s top prize with two Champions League final victories with two different teams.
The “Special One” walked in to Madrid and made a few changes. He signed German World Cup stars Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedeira and the coveted Argentine winger Angel Di Maria to sure up his midfield.
Barcelona and Real Madrid come into the “Clasico” firing on all cylinders. Madrid routed Athletic Bilbao, 5-1, on Saturday at home. Barcelona put on one of the finest performances of the season with an 8-0 victory over Almeria on the weekend. Both teams tried to put out a warning to its rivals ahead of the big match.
Battle of the Best
The game within the game between Madrid and Barcelona has to be the battle for best player in the world between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, both former winners of the Balloon d’Or. Messi and Ronaldo are both untouchable right now, and a major part of each of their team’s success.
Both players scored hat tricks this weekend in their teams wins, but that shouldn’t have surprised anyone this year.
Ronaldo has scored 14 goals and 5 assists in La Liga in 12 appearances so far this year. He has added on another goal and assist in four Champions League matches. The Portuguese international looks like he is enjoying playing under Mourinho.
The former Porto and Inter Milan manager has given Ronaldo the freedom to explore and roam on the field by adding Ozil and Di Maria in the attack – both players can provide the killer pass the Portuguese winger in space as well as take defenders away from him with their ability to run at defenses – creating more one-on-one chances. Ronaldo looks like the former World Player of the Year that thrived up and down the wings of Manchester United. He has played this season with reckless abandon, trying to prove to everyone that he, not Messi, is the player to watch week-in and week-out.
“We are very happy for the win and I’m also very happy for scoring three goals, but the important thing is that we continue being leaders. I’m fighting to win the league, not for the Pichichi (leading goalscorer in La Liga),” Ronaldo told ESPNSoccernet after Madrid’s 5-1 trouncing of Athletic Bilbao. But fans know he is competing in some way with the little Argentine across the country in Catalonia.
Messi’s play has pushed Ronaldo to be even better since moving from England. Messi’s back at his best again this year and Ronaldo has to be feeling the heat.
Messi has scored 13 goals and five assists in league play and five goals in four Champions League matches. He has scored 19 goals in 13 games for Barcelona in all competitions. There isn’t a more dynamic player on the planet right now, and the competition with Ronaldo and Real Madrid seems to have pushed the little Argentine to another level.
The addition to David Villa to the Barcelona forward corps has complimented the Barcelona attack perfectly. While Ibrahimovic gave Barca another type of weapon the box, his movement wasn’t fluid enough to play the way the Catalans do, stroking the ball from side to side, holding possession, and striking when the opponent finally falls asleep. Messi plays best when he has the open space to roam, and now that the big Swede has moved on to AC Milan, Messi gets that space to run at defenders from all over the field. And no one can seem to stop him.
Whoever wins round one of the Clasico will earn the crown of best in the world, for now.
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at Kevin.Koczwara@thesoccerguysonline.com.