‘El Clasico is the biggest match in football’ – former Real Madrid winger Steve McManaman

By Billy Rice

Sunday night will see Barcelona and Real Madrid lock horns in La Liga for the first time this season, with Jose Mourinho’s reigning champions sitting eight points behind their rivals.

Speaking exclusively to Goal.com, former Real Madrid winger Steve McManaman recounted his Clasico experiences, insisting that the fixture represents the ‘biggest match in football’.

“When you play at Camp Nou, certainly from when you play at home, everyone knows it’s two factions within Spain – the Catalans against the Madridistas, Catalunya against Spain – their instant dislike for each other, their rivalry, their religion.

“It’s a very strange match; fuelled by a long, long, centuries old divisive aim where, generally they dislike each other so much.”

“There’s a lot of rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester United, certainly, and Liverpool and Everton, but I’ve never seen rivalry of this standard because of the nature of the political factions within Spain.”

Steve McManaman speaking at the Kicking and Screening festival’s premiere of El Clasico, a film investigating the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Kicking and Screening | El Clasico

The Dossier: The Barcelona plan to stop Ronaldo from scoring in a sixth straight Clasico

By Jonathan Wilson

For a long time the accusation levelled at Cristiano Ronaldo was that he couldn’t turn it on in big games; goals are far from the only measure of performance, but having scored in each of his last five encounters against Barcelona, that jibe can surely be put away.

What is true is that Ronaldo, against the very best, can be a match-loser as much as a match-winner. He can score a brilliant goal, unlock a stubborn defence, devastate a team on the break, but he also rarely picks up his full-back and that can be critical.

The classic example of that, perhaps, was the Champions League final in 2008 when Ronaldo headed Manchester United into the lead against Chelsea. From around the half hour onwards, though, Michael Essien – playing at right-back – surged past him again and again. It was one of those charges that led to Chelsea’s equaliser and it was Essien’s presence almost as an additional midfielder that led to Chelsea dominating the second half and extra-time.

That’s why the battle between Ronaldo and Dani Alves will be critical in Sunday’s Clasico. If Dani Alves keeps charging past Ronaldo, then the chances are that Barcelona will prevail; if Ronaldo has opportunities to take the Brazilian on one-on-one then it should be Real Madrid’s game. Yet the strange thing is that when the sides last met in the league, the two rarely came head-to-head.

In Real Madrid’s 2-1 win at Camp Nou last April, the match that effectively confirmed Madrid as champions, Barcelona played a 3-4-3 with Dani Alves high up on the right. That was problematic for two reasons. First of all, Dani Alves is a superb attacking full-back but not a great winger: he is at his best when he meets an opponent when he is already moving at pace; he lacks the close technical skill to receive the ball with his back to goal or to beat a top-class defender in a confined area. And secondly, by moving Dani Alves so high up the pitch, Pep Guardiola took him away from Ronaldo.

From one point of view Guardiola achieved his objective: his side dominated possession 72%-28% but the problem was they did very little with it, creating only three chances because they lacked penetration.

Marcelo Bielsa, the Argentine coach who has become the intellectual godfather of the high-pressing, possession-based game favoured by Barcelona, speaks always of “verticalidad”; in other words it’s no use just holding the ball and moving it sideways; there must also be a vertical dimension to penetrate the opposing rearguard. Dani Alves, making his runs from deep, at pace, provides that; Dani Alves starting high up the pitch, does not.

Starting Dani Alves deep against Ronaldo makes sense. He can stay back if he needs to, when Real Madrid dominate the ball. It’s extremely unlikely they will do that for any protracted period: Barca had 67% of the play in the home leg of the Super Cup in August and even playing with 10 men for the last hour of the second leg they had 54% possession. And when Barca have the ball, he can go forward, knowing his pace is such that in the majority of cases, he will be able to get back.

When they were at their best, one of the most extraordinary things about Guardiola’s Barcelona was that opposing coaches kept attacking the space behind Dani Alves, only to discover that it didn’t exist. That is only in part a matter of the Brazilian’s pace and stamina, of course; it’s also down to careful defensive organisation – which is why the full-back is so much more effective for his club side than for Brazil.

Sergio Busquets will drop back between the centre-backs, allowing the right-sided centre-back to shuffle across to cover and at least hold Ronaldo up until Dani Alves gets back. Gerard Pique has proved himself highly adept at that and his loss of form towards the end of last season was one of the reasons for Barca’s slump. Pique is likely to miss out with a sprained foot and Carles Puyol has a dislocated elbow, which will place great pressure on Alex Song to fulfil that role.

Football, of course, is a holistic game; stopping Ronaldo alone is not enough. Part of his effectiveness stems from his relationship with Marcelo, overlapping from full-back, and it will be down to whoever plays on the right side of Barcelona’s attack – probably Alexis Sanchez – to try to occupy him. As Manchester City discovered, giving him licence to get forward merely invites pressure. If Madrid do start to dominate on that flank, Xavi, of course, can move wider to help out but that reduces his effectiveness as a hub of possession.

Tito Vilanova has been noticeably more conservative than Guardiola in terms of formation: Sunday will probably be Barca’s 4-3-3 against the 4-2-3-1 of Real Madrid, and that means another battle between Dani Alves and Ronaldo.

Barcelona – Real Madrid Betting Preview: Back Los Blancos to score at least twice

Barely six weeks after our last dose of El Clasico, the world’s biggest football match is once again upon us, and given the respective positions of the two sides in the Spanish league table, it could yet prove to be a title decider.

Though that might sound an absurd statement to make in the first week of October, victory for Barcelona, priced at 4/5 (1.80) with Bet365, would put them 11 points clear of the current champions, a gap surely too great for Madrid to close.

A win then for Jose Mourinho’s men is paramount and can be backed at 3/1 (4.00) while a draw, which would not constitute a bad result for either side, is offered at 14/5 (3.80).

In previous encounters between these two sides, goals have almost been guaranteed. The last eight matches have all seen over 2.5 scored, with a repeat understandably priced at a small looking 1/2 (1.50).

Nevertheless those odds will appeal to punters looking to invest heavily, yet a better bet and one with a decent chance of paying out is backing Madrid to score over 1.5 goals at 6/4 (2.50).

Los Blancos have been in fine scoring form, netting 11 goals in their last three games, while Cristiano Ronaldo has scored consecutive hat tricks.

Against a Barcelona side with a makeshift defence, given the absences of Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, the champions will fancy their chances of scoring.

The price of 6/4 (2.50) of them doing so twice holds terrific value, especially considering the fact that this bet has paid out in the last four Clasicos.

If goals look likely then a decent option for a value bet could well be backing over 2.5 goals in the second half at 12/5 (3.40). This bet paid out in the last Clasico to be played in the Camp Nou and with none of the previous 10 meetings seeing a goal-less second period, there is every chance of a high scoring second half as the game opens up.

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Phil Kitromilides is a sports broadcaster working on radio and TV in London and Madrid. You can also follow Phil on Twitter.

Cruyff: Real Madrid are in more danger than ever

Barcelona icon Johan Cruyff is eagerly anticipating Sunday’s Primera Division match at home against arch-rivals Real Madrid, and feels the reigning champions can not afford to lose at Camp Nou.

Jose Mourinho’s side are currently trailing Barca by eight points after only six games, and Cruyff believes they will find themselves in a precarious situation if they are beaten in the Clasico.

“Normally you don’t know what is going to happen, but this time I think that Madrid are in more danger than ever because they are so far behind,” Cruyff explained to Sky Sports.

“If they lose this one it is like having the whole world falling over you. These are normally the games I fear the most. Madrid will do more than everything to change this situation around.

“Mourinho will be under a lot of pressure after Sunday if they lose. Then there is a big problem.

“It could be [a tipping point]. If [they] play seven or eight games and – if he loses – they will be so far behind [Barca]. There’s no excuse [for that].”

Sunday’s encounter is scheduled to kick off at 19:50CET.

Mourinho: When Real Madrid play Barcelona the world stops

Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho believes El Clasico with Barcelona is the biggest game in the world while he also explained why his side have been below average in La Liga. 

The Spanish champions have not enjoyed the best start to their campaign and enter the first Clasico of the league season this Sunday eight points behind their Catalan rivals who sit atop of the standings.

“When Madrid plays Barcelona, the world stops,” he told Bein Sport.

“It is a game we love to play and it is not just us, but, surely for them also. In this sense, it is definitely more than a normal league match.

“But our goal is to win the championship. It is just three points in the end.”

The former Inter coach believes the champions tag is contributing towards his side’s indifferent start to the Primera Division.

He added: “The fundamental difference is this team last season were not champions. This season they and in my opinion, the team has started the season this way because of the prestige of being the defending champions.”

Mourinho was then asked to reveal what he thought about Real Madrid’s chances in this year’s Champions League.

“The Champions League? It depends, it is a competition where the difference between winning and losing is very small,” he said.

“I do not believe that anybody thought that Chelsea last season would have won it. But, they did and I was happy because I have a blue heart.

“It is necessary that we make it to the quarter-finals or semi-finals. And then from there, anything can happen.”

The Portuguese then spoke about Karim Benzema and revealed his happiness at Real Madrid before once again admitting that his desire is to return to England. 

He continued: “I am happy and want to continue here. I’ve signed with Real Madrid for another four years, because we are the world’s best football club.

“Following my triumphs in England and Italy, Madrid was missing from my CV. Now that I have it, I have to work to the best of my abilities.

“I was very happy in London though, and I’ll return.”