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Oct 20, 2013

Big boys' burden

The Spanish refer to the "FIFA virus" as a phenomenon that affects those bigger clubs whose international players return home from patriotic duty (as in last week) only to find themselves injured or too exhausted to perform adequately for their clubs the following weekend, the poor dears. Add to that the extra burden of the Champions League the week after (as in this week) and there is a half-decent chance that the smaller clubs will grab some fish from the turbulent waters, as the Spanish say.

Barcelona didn't lose until the middle point of last season (to Real Sociedad), an event that registered 9.5 on the Richter scale. This season, they'd won their opening eight games and were expected to keep things the same with their visit to Osasuna, thereby equalling the record of nine consecutive wins from the start of a season, set by Miguel Munoz's Real Madrid side of 1968-69. Atletico Madrid were on for the same, of course, having stuck with the Catalans all the way.

Barcelona also had Carles Puyol back after seven months, another reason to be cheerful, and could afford to leave an almost-fit Leo Messi on the bench to preserve him in jelly for the visit to Milan on Tuesday night. Messi did come on later, but by then Osasuna had kicked enough lumps out of Neymar to remind the Brazilian that El Sadar is never an easy place to come and play. No one likes visiting El Sadar. Three ex-pros have all told me the same, when I asked them which place they most hated playing at. In summary: "It's always freezing, everyone screams at you, the pitch is small and you can never relax."

It is a major event of world significance now if Barcelona or Real Madrid don't win. Most teams would be happy with a point from Pamplona, but Puyol, in the post-match news conference, said he was happy with his return but unhappy at the result. He was referring to the massive possession dominance that Barcelona enjoyed, of course, but the further implication was that a draw had been somehow unacceptable, in the immortal universe that the top clubs now inhabit. It's not Puyol's fault, decent chap that he is, but this is where we are now -- fascinated by the slightest sign of a dent in the armour, of a crack in the edifice.

Amazingly, this was the first time that Barcelona have not scored in the league since they drew 0-0 at Villarreal in January 2012. That is an astonishing statistic, taking in a total of 64 games in which they have always scored at least one goal. It's a mind-boggling fact, almost defying logic and the laws of probability. You'd have expected them to have had more off-days during that amount of games, or to have come up with a few more efficiently parked buses. But no, it's taken up till now and good old Osasuna -- a team that traditionally finds it hard to score -- to break the consecutive run.

And the oddest thing about the weekend was that Atletico failed to take advantage of this slip-up, losing 1-0 at Espanyol and showing their own first signs of mortality. The result caused almost as much surprise as the Barcelona one, showing how far Atletico have travelled since August. In terms of statistics, it was the first time they'd lost away from home in 17 matches. Of course, they also had players on international duty and had half an eye on their trip to Austria Vienna in the Champions League, but the quality of their reaction will be crucial.

Next weekend, in case you didn't know, Barcelona play Real Madrid in this season's first clasico at the Camp Nou, and you would imagine that if Atletico can beat Betis at home in a comfy-looking fixture, they're going to bother at least one of the behemoths. What they really want to do is to go top, but they should have done that this weekend, losing to an Espanyol side that had lost their last three games. Lies, damned lies and statistics, eh?

Real Madrid took some advantage, beating Malaga fairly comfortably and looking more convincing in the process, despite being handed another dodgy penalty in added time. So now they just have the small issue of Juventus in midweek (in Madrid) before the big one next Saturday -- Carlo Ancelotti's first and a test of the mettle of his side, shorn of Mesut Ozil and Xabi Alonso, two figures who have been prominent clasico actors in the recent past.

It seems odd to be contemplating a clasico in which the handshakes of the two managers will not be the focus. There will be no Jose Mourinho, no Pep Guardiola, no Tito Vilanova. It almost sounds like a friendly scenario, and so far this season the two new coaches, Ancelotti and Tata Martino, have been fairly affable and nonconfrontational with the press, even when poked a little. Ancelotti, in particular, has rarely been grumpy, and has generally disarmed the quietly provocative Madrid press pack with irony and self-effacing good humour. So far they like him and have tried hard not to be too critical after some of the poorer performances this season.

The Catalan press have also taken to Martino, although he has bitten a little more than his Italian counterpart on occasions, complaining that criticism of the three closely run wins after the opening-day 7-0 pummelling of Levante was a little harsh, and that it was natural to have some teething problems at such an early stage of the relationship. Martino, as is well documented, was also on Madrid's radar before Ancelotti confirmed his release from PSG, having also been chatted up by Real Sociedad in preseason. There was nothing inevitable about his ending up at the Camp Nou, but so far most of the folks are happy.

It's difficult, nevertheless, to predict a result. The Champions League is in the way, and it's hard to analyse how the results might affect Saturday's outcome. Milan have started poorly and languish halfway down the table, but Barcelona won't be expecting an easy ride. Juventus were hammered 4-2 away at Fiorentina, but neither can Madrid expect an easy night out against them. At least they don't have to travel.

There are also several new elements to this season's clasico that give hope of turning the page from the Mourinho era and a newish dynamic emerging. This is chiefly due to the presence of some different players, unaccustomed to the event. Neymar springs immediately to mind, although you get the feeling that the slow emergence of the two cantera players for Madrid, Alvaro Morata and Jese, could influence matters more than the still-unfit Gareth Bale, the intermittent Isco, and the classy but still nervous Asier Illarramendi. Madrid, as an institution, would like this. It would suggest that they have something resembling a youth policy after all, and that these players can be blooded in the context of the Camp Nou because it represents the apex for them, the maximum dose of motivation-potion possible. A couple of seasons back, when Mourinho could not find a way past Barcelona, he decided to change up the personnel slightly (Pedro Leon, Raphael Varane), reducing the hypnotic effect it was having on his habitual players to always be losing out to the same set of guys. This season has several new elements, plus a Messi who is still not firing on all cylinders.

It's not going to be decisive, but you get the distinct feeling that anything could happen. Whatever -- for now at least "hay liga" (there's something to play for). Despite the fact that two clubs just lost the chance to equal the league's record of consecutive wins from the start of a campaign, if Villarreal can win at Athletic on Monday, the top four sides will be separated by a mere five points, after almost a quarter of the season. After the clasico, it might look even more open than usual. Is democracy returning?